Digital independence day: Your guide to DIY, open-source, anonymous free computing

Take control of your tech life. We'll show you how.

The Founding Fathers may never have considered digital independence, but you can. Technology's marching toward smaller, non-upgradable devices and oodles of free cloud storage threatens to  chain you to specific services or platforms. Fight back with our tips for going DIY on computer building and maintenance, keeping control of your own data, moving to open-source software, and protecting your online privacy.

Build your own PC

The PC still has one big advantage over smartphones and tablets: You can build your own. You can tailor the cost to your budget, and the configuration to your priorities.

Even if a gaming PC wasn't what you had in mind, Marco Chiappetta's features on building $1000 Intel- or AMD-based rigs from scratch will help you learn the DIY ropes.  His $560 home-built "Steam Machine" PC shows you what you can do at the other end of the budget spectrum.

Of course, since this is the PC we're talking about, you're not limited to the examples we talk about here. Thanks to the wide variety of PC components available, you can build to just about any budget.

You can fudge a bit on assembling IKEA furniture, but not a PC. Brad Chacos shows you some common PC-building mistakes and how you can avoid them. Spoiler: Make sure all your components will play nicely with one another. You'll thank yourself later.

Even your old PC can be revived. A new hard drive, extra RAM, or thorough cleaning can extend the life of your machine, and upgrading isn't as hard as you think.

If you use a laptop, your upgrade options may surprise you. Extra memory or a new hard drive can seriously boost your old laptop's performance.

Keep it running smoothly

Keep your hand-built PC in tip-top shape to avoid costly tech support down the road. Start with these seven simple tips to extend your PC's lifespan, which covers the basics on defragmenting your hard drive and protecting against malware, among other things.

Next, learn how you can complete common Windows maintenance tasks on the cheap: Your PC--and pocketbook--will thank you. Alex Cocilova will show you how to clear out those dust bunnies and get those crumbs out of your keyboard.

Since stuff happens, make sure you back up your files. There may even be hope for a seemingly dead PC. Believe it or not, Linux can help save a PC in distress.

Your maintenance need not be tedious, either. You can automate many of these tasks to give yourself more time to enjoy your computer.

Build your own cloud storage

We love cloud storage services like Dropbox and Box as much as anyone, but all of them require you to trust a third party with your data. Luckily, there are ways to enjoy the file-sharing benefits of the cloud without the worries.

Take a look at the Connected Data Transporter: It's a network-attached storage (NAS) device that lives in your home and lets you sync files between all your computers. Or try BitTorrent Sync, which uses the magic of peer-to-peer file sharing to sync files across computers without storing them somewhere in the cloud.

Have an old PC sitting in the closet? With a few modifications, you can turn it into a home server on the cheap and use to to store just about anything--from your media library to Word documents.

Load up on free software

If Windows isn't your thing and you don't want to switch to a Mac, give Linux a try. Ian Paul steps you through three Linux variants that are worth checking out. (Hint: It isn't as hard as you might think.) And once you feel more comfortable with Linux, check out these tools for tweaking the OS so it works better for you.

Of course, there's plenty of free software--open-source or otherwise--available for Windows. These 22 free programs are absolute must-haves for any PC user: They'll help keep your PC more secure, make it easier to use, and ensure that it runs as smoothly as possible.

Take control of your online privacy

Online privacy is more important than you might think, and it's easier than you think to maintain it. These three essential privacy tips will help keep cybercriminals from getting at your personal data, and none of them require any special technical know-how. While you're at it, keep legitimate businesses like Google and Facebook from learning more about you than you'd like.

But if online privacy isn't that big a deal to you, hey, who are we to judge? Alex Wawro will show you how you can sacrifice your online privacy for fun and/or profit.

Browse anonymously

If you really want to hide your tracks, you can do that too, and there are plenty of good reasons for wanting complete online anonymity. Covering your tracks isn't that difficult: You just need the right tools, and Alex Castle will guide you to them. Anonymity tools have other perks, too--they can help you get around content filters and restrictions.

Freedom from tech support. Freedom from pricey upgrade fees. Learning how to manage your own computing life may be a little more work, but the payoff is definitely worth it.

This story, "Digital independence day: Your guide to DIY, open-source, anonymous free computing" was originally published by PCWorld.

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