Eight projects for your PC or laptop
Encrypt your data
If you’re worried about GCHQ being on your back, there are several free encryption tools worth trying out.
Open-source software TrueCrypt offers various options for encrypting all or part of a hard disk or USB drive. The software renders sensitive files unreadable without the key, and lets you drop them into an encrypted “locker” within the drive. However, some functions will take up considerable room on your PC, and the encryption process can be time-consuming.
If you’re on the Pro or Enterprise editions of Windows 8, Microsoft offers a full-disk encryption feature, BitLocker. As with TrueCrypt, BitLocker protects your files by encrypting whole volumes, using 128-bit or 256-bit encryption. Activate the feature through the control panel’s security settings – but you’ll need to make sure your drive has two NTFS partitions to meet BitLocker’s requirements. BitLocker also comes with the Ultimate and Enterprise editions of Vista and Windows 7.
Revise your online privacy settings
Facebook seems to change its privacy terms on a near-weekly basis, making it easy to miss amendments and not realise how your data is displayed and shared on social networks. If you have a spare hour, it’s wise to double-check all is as it should be. In Facebook, click the settings icon in the top-right corner and go through each one in the list. To see what other people can see on your page, click the lock icon and select “who can see my stuff”.
This year, Twitter added a tracking system that follows you around the web, in order to display targeted advertising. To turn it off, go to Settings, and in the Security And Privacy panel, untick the box next to “Promoted content”.
In both services, it’s worth double-checking which apps you have enabled, and switching off any unnecessary ones; you may not be using them anymore, but they can still harvest your data. For other services, rinse and repeat – and hope their privacy settings aren’t updated the following day.
Turn an old laptop or PC into a NAS box
If there’s an old desktop PC or laptop gathering dust in the loft, then why not transform it into a fully functioning NAS appliance with FreeNAS? If you fancy streaming movies, music and photos, or just want to keep data backed up over a home network, this can save you a packet over dedicated devices.
Don’t mistake this for the cheap and cheerful option: FreeNAS is a powerful, open-source NAS operating system that uses the same secure ZFS file system employed by high-end business NAS appliances. Installation isn’t too tricky: simply download the installation image from the website (there are both 32-bit and 64-bit versions), write the image to a spare 2GB USB flash drive, and boot the laptop or desktop PC from it.
Since FreeNAS runs directly from the flash drive, all the disk space in the host PC is used for storage purposes. Make sure the PC is connected to your home network, direct your browser towards the device’s web address, and use FreeNAS’ simple web interface to complete the setup. Fill an old desktop PC with spare hard disks, and you can build up a secure, speedy NAS for peanuts.
Teach yourself 3D modelling
3D design may seem daunting, but it’s a rich and rewarding hobby, and you don’t need to shell out a penny to get started. Two popular options are the open-source Blender project and SketchUp, a commercial package that’s available in a free beginner edition called SketchUp Make.