Protecting a Laptop from the Internet
August 3, 2009 8:16 PM   Subscribe

What's the best way to get a laptop ready for a sibling's trip to college?

My younger sibling is getting ready to head off to college 600 miles away at the end of the month. We just ordered a standard 'ol Dell laptop and I'm looking for the best way to get it set up so that I don't have to worry too much about remotely fixing and diagnosing problems.

My plan so far:
1. Wipe Vista off
2. Partition the drive into 3 partitions: 2 equally-sized OS partitions, one larger data partition.
3. Install Win XP SP3 with all updates.
4. Install required productivity software, video, image, browsers, etc.
5. Somehow clone C:\ to the second partition so that it can be recovered in the event of a virus.

Any other ideas? What's the best way to protect the laptop from nasties that a teenager nowadays inevitably will accumulate while surfing the web without my intervention?

What's a good piece of software that can do step 5?
posted by yellowbkpk to Computers & Internet (17 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Three partitions is overkill. Don't clone it either. Set the laptop up, run updates, install software, etc, then make a Ghost image and save it to the data partition (which is where you can re-direct My Documents while you're at it.)
posted by wfrgms at 8:19 PM on August 3, 2009

What was previously said. AV, Office, Firefox... The computer will come with a system restore. Leave Vista on.

Campus will have tech support. Don't worry.
posted by k8t at 8:25 PM on August 3, 2009

Leave Vista.

The best thing you can do for your sibling would be to make him/her feel more comfortable using the laptop. Don't make the computer seem like some mysterious thing that will break if he/she touches it wrong. There's probably nothing irreverseable your sibling can do just surfing the web. Let him/her troubleshoot any problems that come up.

"If all else fails, I'll walk you through reformatting. Have fun."
posted by SAC at 8:41 PM on August 3, 2009

I just ordered my youngest brother a budget laptop direct from Lenovo. My plan is to leave Vista on there, install Malware Bytes Antimalware, configure auto updates, system restore, and the built-in firewall, set up the hosts file, set up Firefox/Adblock Plus/Noscript.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 8:45 PM on August 3, 2009

Leave Vista - it'll be fine, esp. if the laptop has enough RAM to run it.

Don't worry about partitions - make a ghost image of the drive, like wfrgms suggested, so that if you have to restore it, you can restore it to a clean state without having to nuke it from orbit.

Don't throw too much crap onto it - Dell may fill it with bloatware, but you could just as easily do the same thing.

I'm glad you're helping your sibling out, but the machine will be fine. Plenty of college kids take laptops to school every year, and do everything from pour a beer on them to get them infected with so much spyware that it crawls. And everyone ends up ok.
posted by SNWidget at 8:46 PM on August 3, 2009

Best answer: I recently went through the same thing for my younger sister (who knows nothing about technology/computers/the internet), and at first I went a little nuts -- standard account with a locked Admin account, limited access to programs, unable to install anything, etc. I learned my lesson quickly when higher authorities (IE: parents) stepped in and told me to lighten up. They pointed out that if someone had done this for me, I'd be angry at being mother-henned. So, instead, I opted for educating my sister.

Don't assume she's an idiot; give her a basic explanation about protecting her computer (virus scan any downloads or attachments before opening them, there are no african princes wanting to give you money, etc), and give her the tools to use. (I rec: Firefox + Adblock Plus, AVG Free, CCleaner, JKDefrag -- these alone, combined with good habits, have gotten me through the last 4 years without a single virus or hiccup.)

Let her know that if she behaves irresponsibly, she has to wait until she sees you to be able to fix it, which could mean months with a half-functioning or completely useless computer and a lot of hassle. Explain that fixing it may mean starting over, losing EVERYTHING. Teach her to make backups and not trust anything, especially if it comes in the form of a .exe. If she's going to install something, explain how she needs to read EVERYTHING to make sure she doesn't get any annoying toolbars full of spyware, etc. My mom still can't figure this out; get to your sister early. Teach her about the importance of shopping on secure sites, and keeping her personal information private.

Type up a manual and refuse to give her the laptop until she reads it, if you want, but in the end, education is going to be a lot better than outright trying to prevent her from doing something stupid. The bonus to education is that it might keep her from doing something stupid on someone else's computer, as well.

On preview: What SAC said.
posted by iarerach at 8:46 PM on August 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I thoroughly agree with blowing away Vista. Go XP for sure. Outpost Firewall (pay) or Comodo Firewall (free). Malwarebytes Antimalware (pay, if you want the realtime protection) or SpywareTerminator (free). Disable HIPS, it's a royal pain. And buy NOD32 - a fantastic antivirus which will also monitor Office documents and inbound shite from the Internet. Image the drive onto a USB flash drive - DriveImage could be the go, but Acronis is better than Ghost if you want to pay. Then Office 2003 or 2007, Firefox or Maxthon Classic with IE8, and a few neat casual games (I recommend Jungo, Tumblebugs, Bejeweled II, 7 Wonders - Treasures of Seven), a twitter client like Twhirl, Trillian (free) for instant messaging, Foobar2000, The KMPlayer to play videos etc, Defraggler (free), set on a weekly schedule, for defragmentation, CCleaner (Crap Cleaner, free) that they can run manually to keep their temp files under control, UltraVNC (free) (listening on a non-standard port of your choosing and for manual activation ONLY) in the event that you really do need to do remote assistance, and Keepass so they can keep their site passwords secure.

Stick to two partitions. Make a decent sized one for programs, OS and My Documents crap, the other one for miscellaneous stuff. Seacrest out.
posted by cyniczny at 8:49 PM on August 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

Leave Vista. It's fine.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 8:55 PM on August 3, 2009

I thoroughly agree with blowing away Vista

I've messed with my fair share of laptops, and I've learned that changing the OS that came with it is more work that it's worth. Right now, the laptop has whatever drivers it needs. It works. Whatever goes wrong, you can always just revert back to whatever state it came in. If that doesn't work, it's probably a hardware issue and you can just call up Dell and test out their customer service. Replacing the OS means you have to be sure Dell has drivers for everything from the mute button to the stupid WiFi on/off switch. You'll always wonder if the WiFi cutting out is because Dell wrote shitty XP drivers for that laptop of if the card itself went out.

Have you ever used Vista? If you have, and you've had a bad experience, ignore me. I'm not trying to go to bat for the OS. But if you're looking to reduce the number of things that can go wrong for your sibling, leave whatever OS came with the laptop.

By all means, though, get rid of the bloatware that it came with.
posted by SAC at 9:03 PM on August 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

External hard drive for backup.
posted by i_am_a_fiesta at 9:18 PM on August 3, 2009

I am the oldest sibling from a luddite family. I went to college barely knowing how to burn a CD, and five years later I'm fairly savvy because I learned everything the hard way and I didn't have a big brother to bail me out.
External monitor's aspect ratio isn't supported by my laptop's display drivers? No problem! I'll just jigger this driver I found that's written in German which is the only one my display seems to like.
Installed a spyware remover that caused a fatal registry error? Teachable moment on installing Windows from scratch!

I agree that partitioning sounds like overkill. Educate her, and work through things with her when she gets stuck.
posted by slow graffiti at 10:11 PM on August 3, 2009

Just five days ago I linked to Lifehacker's List of Essential Free Windows Downloads on this question asking for what to put on a new laptop that's going to be used for work and travel. It's not the same question but it does a good job at listing some essential apps to put on a laptop.

Also, I'd like to remind you that Windows 7 will be out in October and I'm near positive that the laptop is eligible for a free upgrade come October. I just helped a friend buy an HP laptop and she just has to fill out some forms for her to get the upgrade later (I think it required proof of purchase and a few other things). With that in mind, it seems pointless to switch to XP only to upgrade to Windows 7 two months from now.
posted by carpyful at 11:28 PM on August 3, 2009

Burhanistan: "Yes, leave Vista on there as it will make upgrading to Windows 7 possible if they want to do that. I personally think that partitions are kind of a waste of time for most end-user purposes."

How does XP prevent you to upgrade to Windows 7?

The whole point of partitions is that you easily retain all your user data, documents, files, etc. when you restore an old image of the OS in the event of some catastrophe.
posted by turkeyphant at 1:58 AM on August 4, 2009

What's the best way to protect the laptop from nasties that a teenager nowadays inevitably will accumulate while surfing the web without my intervention?

In my experience, there is no feasible way to protect a Windows box against a teenage sysadmin. Teenagers are not careful people. Your best bet is to make it easy to fix when it breaks.

My current practice for customers who have teenagers and aren't interested in using a proper operating system (i.e. anything but Windows) is to set the computer up with four partitions: XP system (20GB NTFS), XP user (large NTFS), Ubuntu filesystem (10GB ext3), Ubuntu swap (1gb).

I do the Windows install using nLite and the customer's own XP installation media to make up a custom XP installer disc that has all the drivers I need and - critically - puts the Documents and Settings folder on the XP user partition (the customer gets a copy of that disc as well).

Then I install Ubuntu and copy backup-windows and revert-windows scripts (tweaked to reflect the appropriate device names and mount points) to /usr/local/bin.

When Windows software installation is finished, I boot into Ubuntu and use backup-windows to save a compressed copy of the Windows system partition into ~/backups/sdaX.ntfsclone.gz (which is on the Ubuntu partition so Windows can't screw it up), then make a symlink from revert-windows's default image file path (which is on the Windows user partition) to there so that revert-windows will work as expected even if the user has never invoked backup-windows themselves.

I then add three buttons to the Ubuntu desktop panel: Backup Windows invokes backup-windows with no arguments; Revert Windows invokes revert-windows with no arguments; and Reinstall Windows invokes "revert-windows ~/backups/sdaX.ntfsclone.gz" to reapply my first backup.

This allows the user to take a snapshot of the Windows system partition right before any software install, then revert it if the software install screwed things up. I also encourage my customers to boot into Ubuntu every other week and click Backup Windows when they have nothing better to do and are pretty sure their computer is still malware-free.

Yes, I know that Windows XP comes with System Restore built in, and that it makes its own restoration checkpoints every day without the user having to do anything at all. However, Windows is pretty easy to screw to the point where it won't boot at all, making System Restore utterly useless; also, System Restore sometimes flat refuses to restore to a previous restore point, and sometimes it just screws things up even worse than they were before you started it. The Ubuntu-based scripts are equivalent to a full Windows nuke and pave except that they leave user files and settings intact.

Using a full Ubuntu installation to make a pretty environment for Windows backup and restoration is, of course, complete overkill. Something like Slitaz or Damn Small Linux would probably work as well or better, and save a GB or two of disk space.
posted by flabdablet at 3:44 AM on August 4, 2009 [2 favorites]

Burhanistan: The key word there is "upgrade" as in having Vista installed will allow you to purchase the less costly Windows 7 Upgrade rather than the full version.

The upgrade option you link to is a different scheme. The Windows website states that, "If you have Windows XP or Windows 2000, you can purchase Windows 7 Upgrade versions". In any case, having the Vista licence should be sufficient.

A catastrophe often involves the physical hard drive, making partitions useless. Someone mentioned an external hard drive for backup instead, which has more advantages imho. Pretty much every USB hard drive comes with its own backup utility.

The question asks how to "protect the laptop from nasties that a teenager nowadays inevitably will accumulate while surfing the web without my intervention?". A separate partition will do this. Hard drive failure is a completely different matter and backups serve a different purpose than isolating user files from the OS partition.
posted by turkeyphant at 4:33 AM on August 4, 2009

Burhanistan: "The Windows website states that, "If you have Windows XP or Windows 2000, you can purchase Windows 7 Upgrade versions". In any case, having the Vista licence should be sufficient.

Just having the license is not sufficient. If one wants to upgrade to Windows 7 it can't be done over Windows XP.

The link you provide makes it clear from Microsoft's official documentation that it can be done over XP. Everyone spouting nonsense to the contrary is completely wrong. And nothing in your link give any indication that a existing licence is insufficient to qualify for the upgrade version of Windows 7. If you have information that contradicts anything I've said, please feel free to provide it.
posted by turkeyphant at 4:37 PM on August 10, 2009

Mod note: few comments removed - please direct answers to the question to the OP and email other users if you want to talk to them directly about this topics, thanks.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 2:34 PM on August 11, 2009

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