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Gifts for the PC-age worrywart

What’s a digital-aged worrywart, er, caretaker to do for a holiday gift? There are options that can satisfy even your strongest protective urges.
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Cyberspace: It’s a jungle out there. Once upon a time, the Internet was a relatively benign, simple place to track down information or contact friends. Today, it’s more like a dark alley you have to walk down to get to your favorite bar. The Web is crawling with hackers, computer viruses, spam, privacy-stealing pop-up ads, even sexual predators. If you’re worried about the ones you love traveling through that dark alley, here’s a few gifts you might consider to make the trip a little safer.

Just admit it. You are the responsible gift-giver in the family. While the other uncles keep layering Game Boy cartridges on your niece, you’re the one who starts the college fund. When your husband buys your son a bike, you buy the helmet. If someone is giving your sister a new pair of skis, you buy her the hat and gloves.

What’s a digital-age worrywart er, caretaker to do? There are holiday gifts which can satisfy even your strongest protective urges. You won’t exactly be a hero on Christmas morning, but then you’re used the that. And you may very well be a hero some day after that.

It’s impossible to completely innoculate anyone from the pitfalls of cyberspace. Antivirus software, firewalls, pop-up blockers, child protection programs, and a healthy dose of common sense are all helpful — and we’ll get to them in a moment.

But first: Something bad eventually happens to everyone who goes online or relies on their computer for anything important. At some point, almost every hard drive crashes and loses all its data.

They need a spare copy
There is only one true protection: Keep a spare copy of your digital files. While backing up data isn’t a sexy option, it’s the only sure-fired way to recover when an digital mishap strikes. Backups don’t just help when files have been accidentally deleted. They’re also the best insurance against a computer virus, a power surge or other electrical mishaps. Regular backups are the digital-age equivalent of getting your oil changed every 3,000 miles.

And if that doesn’t sound convincing, how about this: With the maturing of the digital camera, many people now keep the family photo album on their hard drive instead of on a shelf? Anyone who might answer “I’d grab the family pictures,” to the question “What one thing would you grab from your house if there were a fire?” needs to safeguard those memories.

“A lot more people who are out there capturing photos haven’t tasted the agony of defeat if their hard drive goes,” said IDC analyst David Reinsel. “You need a secure second copy of those precious gigabytes. You can always rewrite a résumé or re-create a spreadsheet, but there are things we can’t re-create in the family photo album, like that day at a the theme park.”

And then there’s the digital music collection you’ve so painstakingly gathered.

Now, you won’t see “Give the gift of backups” on very many television advertisements or billboards. But if you’ve ever even considered giving someone you love Jiffy Lube coupons, you now have an option in the world of computers. This year there are simple backup tools that make this annoying task easy and make for a good, responsible gift. OK, it’s not a remote-controlled monster truck. But it’s not a tie or a set of clean socks, either. And think of the rage and fury you might prevent. If you share a computer with this person, the monitor — and the den window — you save may be your own.

The 'OneTouch' System
Maxtor Corp. sells a simple contraption that sits next to your computer and does the trick for between $200 and $400. How simple? The device has only one button. Press it, and all your files are copied. Called “OneTouch,” the device is really just a standard external hard drive, but both software and hardware are geared to the mundane task of backing up. Hard drive maker Seagate has its own version of the one-touch idea for around the same price.

The single button is a bit gimmicky — both devices come with software that can tell the computer to back itself up automatically, at regular intervals, such as once a week. But think of the button like dental floss sitting there on the bathroom counter. It will probably help your loved one do the right thing.

Since the software is smart enough to copy only new and edited files, regular maintenance backups take only a few minutes. Installation takes longer, perhaps 30 minutes or more, since the device creates an exact mirror of every file on the computer. If you really want to give a meaningful gift, promise a night of your time as well and help the person you love get the system up and running.

Just to show that such a plain device — can it even be called a gadget? — isn’t solely practical, you can point out that special software turns the external drives into music jukeboxes, specially designed to organize that legally acquired digital music collection.

Meanwhile, there is evidence that mundane backup devices are in fact gaining some perceived sexiness. The “Best of Comdex” peripheral last month wasn’t a gadgety new joystick; it was CMS Products’ new backup and disaster recovery system. Called “Velocity,” the device actually sits inside a consumer’s computer, constantly backing up data and system settings. If there’s a total hard drive failure, it it works like an airliner’s backup electrical system: The computer automatically switches to the Velocity system and boots up just fine, old files intact. Software that manages the constant file-copying is aptly named “BounceBack.”

All-in-one safety suites
Of course, none of that helps keep your loved ones’ files safe from Internet attackers. Another nice option for practical computer gift givers this season is the emerging selection of computer safety software suites.

It’s an unmitigated hassle to keep antivirus software, antispam filters and antihacker firewalls up-to-date, particularly if they were all purchased at different times from different vendors. Now, for around $50, you can give your loved ones an Internet prophylactic designed to beat back all these Internet pests with one software package.

“There are a lot of different threats someone connecting to the Internet faces,” said Tracy Hulver, director of product management for McAfee, which offers its Internet Security Suite. “The average consumer buyer is being overloaded with what they need.” McAfee takes the approach that consumers really want an all-in-one solution to their security problems, Hulver said.

Many protection software suites go beyond the basics. Trend Micro’s awkwardly named “PC-cillin Internet Security” offers something called content security protection. It watches what’s being typed and prevents children from volunteering to strangers your home telephone numbers, addresses, credit card numbers or other personal information. The characters are simply erased even before they are transmitted in a chat room or an e-mail.

Symantec Corp. sells software that helps those overwhelmed by the sheer number of user names and passwords necessary to browse or shop online. But this isn’t just about convenience, says Tom Powledge, director of product management at Symantec.

“People need so many that they either use the same password everywhere, and that’s bad, or they write them down and put them on sticky notes on their screens. Depending on where you are, that can be ever worse,” he said.

With the password manager contained in Symantec’s SystemWorks utilities suite, users enter a password once. After that, it’s automatically entered into the Web site. As an added bonus, users are warned if their password is easy to guess.

“Hackers have dictionaries, and they just use automated programs to simulate login attempts again and again,” Powledge said. Thousands of eBay users have had their accounts hijacked and used to commit crimes, for example. It’s believed many accounts are hacked by criminals who are able to guess eBay users’ passwords. “Password security is an extremely important aspect to issues around identity theft,” Powledge added.

Of course, it’s not much of a gift if the recipient has to spend a week’s worth of nights figuring out how to set up the various systems. McAfee’s package packs quite a punch, but the list of included products is imposing: McAfee VirusScan 8, McAfee Personal Firewall Plus 5, Privacy Service 6 and McAfee SpamKiller Home Edition 5.

All the manufacturers have concentrated on making the software work well right out of the box, but the programs still won’t work if they aren’t set up properly. Again, it’s a good idea to give the gift of an evening, promising to sit with the recipient to ensure their computers really are protected.

After all, an unopened box of antivirus software sitting next to a PC has never stopped a single virus, just as an external hard drive that’s not hooked up has never managed to save a single digital photo. If you are the nervous Nellie gift giver in your family, you might as well go the full nine yards and spend not just the money but the time to make sure the ones you love enjoy a safe, trouble-free year of computing in 2004.