My first computer was a Commodore VIC-20. It raged with 3.5K of RAM, a high-speed cassette deck, and built-in BASIC. I used to copy game programs string-by-string from the back of COMPUTE! magazine -- tens of thousands of lines of code -- and small errors were not an option. One syntax error and the program wouldn't work. When I did make those errors, I'd go back, line by line, and check for differences. There was nothing -- at the time -- more annoying than seeing hours of code crash because of one bad POKE statement.
That digital fastidiousness has stuck with me since. I keep all my computers' files in order, keep operating systems updated, backup constantly to a remote storage device and quickly go after a machine that's behaving strangely. The net result, and I may be tempting fate, is that I have never had a computer completely fail in the thirty years I've been using them.
There was, of course, that one time, but that wasn't my fault and I'll leave that for the end of this column to reward those who keep reading -- or those who have read this far and now know to skip to the end.
I've helped many friends and relatives deal with crashed machines and devices more times than I'd like to count, and in each and every case I can track the cause to human error. Sure, machines and media can go bad on their own, but that happens a lot less than problems caused by poor digital hygiene.
With that I present to you the top three signs that a user is going to experience digital failure in the future:
Bad Digital Hygiene
Ever walk by a computer at work or school -- or even in your own house -- and the desktop looks like a quilt of icons? That's because that computer user doesn't put his or her files where they belong: in folders and subdirectories. They also don't run the occasional file permissions or drive optimization routines because they don't know how or simply don't take the time.
This practice probably doesn't do much to harm the computer or hard drive immediately, but it's a warning sign that the user isn't thinking about their computer's health. Sort of like how an out-of-shape person isn't necessarily unhealthy at the moment, but chances are there will be problems down the line.
Digital cleanliness issues can be physical, too: ever see a keyboard so speckled with dust, dirt, and food bits that, if turned over, could feed dozens of hungry children? This straight-up dirty computer use might look harmless if not downright icky, but it is a sign that the user isn't thinking about digital hygiene.
Extensions and Plug-Ins
Extensions and plug-ins are cool, I suppose, if you're looking to enhance your Internet experience. A pop-up here to alert you that shoes are on sale, a toolbar there to flatten search results -- I get it. But what you're really doing is adding software that comes between you and the software you really want to use. Sounds fine on the surface, but when one bit of code updates and leaves the other behind, you end up with digital loose ends that can lead to bigger problems, usually on the performance side.
So the next time you're installing that plug-in, ask yourself: will this really save me time when the search bar is already right in my browser? Don't I already have a program that I can keep running in the background that does this even better and faster? What am I gaining here other than some new thing to get out of whack when Google updates Chrome? Chances are that since you're an Engadget reader, you're pretty advanced as a computer user. Ditch the unnecessary detritus and keep your browser clean.
And may the computer gods have mercy on your soul if you install anti-virus and other security utilities and just let them do their thing.
Out-of-Date Apps and Operating System
My wife's computer was acting up -- running really slow, taking forever to wake up, you know the symptoms -- so the first thing I did was take a look at what she was running. Her operating system was up to date enough as she uses a late model laptop, but when I ran a check for software updates I was presented with dozens of prompts begging me to let her software join modern times.
I let the updates do their thing, restarted a couple times, ran a quick disk utility to clean out some old databases, and she was up and running. When I asked her why she didn't let the software update itself when prompted, she simply said, "Because I had other stuff to do."
Keeping your software up to date assures that you're running code that has been error checked and tested. Software engineers don't just release software and let it sit. They cull user feedback and update software to make it run faster and bug-free. If you're stuck on an old version just because you like it or don't have time to update, you're probably putting yourself in harm's way.
Nine times out of ten, terminal crashes can be avoided by a user who pays attention to their machine's behavior. Like keeping a pet, we have to notice when our systems are doing strange things before larger problems develop. Perhaps only experienced users even notice when things are about to go bad, but even the most novice user can learn to keep things in order.
I live a computer life without plug-ins, antivirus software, and even without third-party utilities. I just look out for symptoms. As for that one time when I did have a fatal crash, well, that was that hard drive's fault -- ahem. It was a 60MB external Seagate drive that had a bad SCSI bus and eventually shredded its own sectors to oblivion. I did all I could, but those were the early days of spinning discs and sometimes they just got ill. RIP, Big Bertha.
Joshua Fruhlinger is the former Editorial Director for Engadget and current contributor to both Engadget and the Wall Street Journal. You can find him on Twitter at @fruhlinger.