Q&A: How do I get my PC back in shape?

Yearly Maintenance

Excellent question Sandy. Many computer users do not realize that just like your automobile, a computer needs routine maintenance to keep it in good working order. I would recommend maintenance a little more often than once per year, but a good spring cleaning is certainly better than nothing.

I think I have to start by saying that there is a fine line between a computer needing a little spring cleaning and actually being in need of repair. A computer that is starting to boot and run slowly could be a result of something as simple as some unsolicited spyware floating around, a virus infection or even a misbehaving program or driver. But it could also be an indication of something more serious such as a failing hard drive, especially if your computer is 4 or more years old. You indicated that your computer is about 2 years old, so I am going to assume, for now, that your hardware is in good working order.

If your computer has experience a major slowdown suddenly and there is nothing physically wrong like a bad hard drive, here is a quick list of the common, recent problems that I have run into. You may want to check a few of these before performing all of the steps listed below.

• Infected – Your computer is infected with Viruses, Spyware or other malware and needs to be scanned and cleaned. (See Below)

• Norton Antivirus Misbehaving – Norton can get out of sorts and cause all kinds of problems. I suggest uninstalling it to see if it is the cause of your problem. You can always reinstall it afterwards or install some other antivirus software.

• Google Desktop – Some computers experience a major slowdown when Google Desktop Search is installed. This program constantly indexes all of your files on your computer and can really slow thing down. Simply Uninstall.

• Internet Explorer 7 – Microsoft’s new Internet Explorer 7 can cause major problems on some computer. If your problems started after this was installed, try going back to IE 6 by uninstalling IE 7 through ADD and REMOVE PROGRAMS.

• Kodak Updater – Some versions of Kodak software has been known to cause a real slowdown. Uninstall or update from the Kodak website.

• Windows Update – Occasionally a Windows update can cause a problem. If the slow down started just after a Windows Update, remove the update.

Before I get going on actual maintenance procedures, BACKUP, BACKUP, BACKUP… I know, we all hear this all the time but it is especially important to backup prior to performing any service. So I will say it again. Backup everything that is important to you.

With that out of the way, let’s get started with what I would call “Yearly Maintenance”. I am basing this on Windows XP but is similar for other operating systems:

1. BACKUP - Backup up all your data. (Enough said)

2. SET RESTORE POINT – Before you start any maintenance, I always suggest setting a Windows Restore Point. This will give you a possible way back from a problem. No guarantees, but could help. Click on START > ALL PROGRAMS > ACCESSORIES > SYSTEM TOOLS > SYSTEM RESTORE > Select Create a Restore Point > Enter a Description like “Before Maintenance” > Click on CREATE > When complete, Click on CLOSE.

3. TAKE INVENTORY – Now is a good time to take an inventory of what you have and to write down some of your system parameters so that you have some data to compare next year or when something goes wrong. Check the following and Write it down. If you are handy with Excel, you can start a spreadsheet to track this information.

a. GENERAL INFO – Write Down your computer Make, model, serial number, when you purchased it and any upgrades or repairs you have made to it over the years. I would also make a list of all the programs that you use on a regular basis. This will help you later on when you are trying to decide what junk to remove.

b. DISK DRIVE – Take note of the total size of your hard drive as well as how much space you have used and have left. If your drive is almost full, this can account for a major slow down in system performance. Double Click on MY COMPUTER > Right Click on your C: Drive > Select PROPERTIES > Click on the GENERAL tab. You can also use this information over time to track the amount of data that you are creating to help plan for backups as well as to aid you in possible new computer decisions.

c. MEMORY – You had mentioned that you thought you might have 200mb of memory, this is probably incorrect because memory is usually installed in multiples of 128mb and on a 2 year old computer usually in multiples of 256mb. So you would typically have 256, 512, 768 or 1024 (1gig) and so on. Check the amount of installed memory by Right Clicking on MY COMPUTER > Select PROPERTIES. The type of processor and the amount of memory will be listed near the bottom of the GENERAL tab window. You may have to wait a moment for the information to appear. Note: The amount of memory listed can be off from what I mentioned above depending on the type of graphics adapter you have. Some video systems share the main memory thus showing less memory than expected. In any case, if you are running Windows XP and have less than 512mb of memory, I would strongly suggest upgrading your memory. It is fairly common for XP computers that are 2 or more years old to have only 256mb of memory. This might have been Ok at the time, but add Service Pack 2, 80+ Windows updates and resource draining Security software such as Norton and 256mb just does not cut it. In any case, write down the memory listed and compare this to what your original invoice stated. I have seen situations where a module can go bad and you are suddenly working with only half the memory.

d. PROCESSES – I like to take note of the total number of processes running on my computer. This gives me a benchmark to work with for future comparisons. Processes are all the little programs and services that are running in the background. To view Processes: Right Click a blank section of your task bar and select TASK MANAGER > Now Click on the PROCESSES tab. This will display a list of all the processes running on your computer at this time. Depending on your Computer and what you have installed, this number can range from about 22 to 75. Your ultimate goal is to reduce this number as much as possible, leaving only necessary processes running. But for now you are going to just write down the total number of processes running. NOTE: It is best to initially check processes after rebooting your computer and waiting about 10 minutes. This number can vary up and down depending on what the computer may be doing at that exact moment. Some programs could be requesting updates from the internet or maybe running a virus or spyware scan. If you are interested in learning more about some of these, simply enter the name of the process into a Google search.

e. TASK BAR – Being aware of the items on your task bar can help you stay on top of what is going on. Other than the standard notifications about the status of your network connection or letting you know that there are updates available for Windows, keeping an eye on the task bar may allow you to catch potential problems before they become a major issue. I can’t tell you how often I run across someone who has ignored a big red X through a Norton Antivirus Icon only to end up with a virus infected computer and later find out that Norton had expired or stopped working the previous year.

4. INSTALL OR UPDATE TOOLS – Now that you have taken some notes about your system we need to either download some tools that we will need or update the tools that you already have. You want to have all your tools installed and updated before starting the cleaning process. This is what you will need:

a. ANTIVIRUS – You will need one good Antivirus program. If you already have one installed then you will need to run its updater to make sure it has the most current virus definitions. If it has expired or is not working correctly, you can download a free program from Grisoft called AVG Free If you prefer to purchase one, I would recommend Nod32, Kaspersky, PC-Cillin, AVG, E-Trust or McAfee. Make sure you uninstall your old antivirus software before installing a new version.

b. FILE CLEANER – Cleaning out temporary junk files can be performed manually, but I prefer a little program call ATF and best of all it is free.

c. ANTISPYWARE – You are going to want to have 3 or 4 Antispyware type programs installed. You can purchase one such as Webroots Sp Sweeper which is good or you can download some free versions. I would suggest Grisoft AVG Antispyware (formerly Ewedo), Spybot, AdAware, Microsoft Defender. Many of these can be downloaded from Defender is at

d. REGISTRY CLEANER – This is optional, if you happen to already have one installed, that is fine.

5. SCAN DISK FOR ERRORS – Click on START > MY COMPUTER > Right Click on your C: drive and select PROPERTIES > Select the TOOLS Tab > In the Error Checking window click on CHECK NOW > Check off both boxes > Restart your computer and the your drive will be checked for errors when the computer restarts. This can take a several hours.

6. RUN VIRUS SCAN – Now that you have all your tools installed and updated, I recommend disconnecting or turning off your internet connection before starting the process. Run a full virus scan using whatever software you have chosen to install.

7. UNINSTALL PROGRAMS – Go through your list of programs (START > ALL PROGRAMS) and look for any programs that you no longer use or have never used. It is best to leave any that you have questions about. When you find one that you no longer need, use the uninstaller listed for that program, if uninstall is not listed, write down the name of the program to remove later. Some programs will ask you to restart the computer after uninstalling. Go ahead and do this. It is a good idea to restart your computer even if you are not asked to do so.

8. ADD OR REMOVE PROGRAMS - Now you want to remove the programs that did not have an uninstaller listed. Click on START > CONTROL PANEL > ADD OR REMOVE PROGRAMS. Start going down through the list of installed programs and remove any that you no longer need or want. Again it is best to leave any that you are unsure of. Restart your computer after you uninstall each program, even if you are not asked to do so.

9. DELETE OTHER JUNK – Now is a good time to go through all your data in MY DOCUMENTS and delete any that you no longer need. You could also use this time to reorganize your files by moving individual files into meaningful folders. The same is true for email. If you are using Outlook or Outlook Express for email, then you might want to go through your emails and delete and reorganize.

10. DELETE TEMP FILES – You can delete all your temporary files manually by running DICKCLEAN and then going into Internet Explorer and deleting Internet Temp files, History and cookies. But I prefer to use ATF and let it do most of the work for you. NOTE: If you delete Cookies (Which I suggest at least once per year), you will loose some of your saved login names for some websites.

11. ANTISPYWARE SCANS – Next you want to run full scans with EACH of your Antispyware type programs and remove any problems that they find. You may have to restart your computer and scan again to remove some of the more stubborn problems. If you have multiple user accounts on your computer and depending on what software you are running you may need to run each scan while logged into each users account.

12. STARTUP PROGRAMS – There are a bunch of programs and services that are set to run whenever your computer starts. Some of them are necessary such as antivirus programs and Firewalls and then there are others that do not really need to be started like Quicktime and Realplayer. You can access some of the startup list by clicking on START > RUN > type msconfig in the run box > Click on the STARTUP tab > you will be presented with a list of startup items. You can uncheck the box for any item that you do not want to have start. If you want to lean more about each entry, simply enter the name into a Google search. Again if you are unsure of any entry leave it checked. You can always go back and recheck any items. Reboot your computer.

13. WINDOWS AND OFFICE UPDATES – Now that your computer should be nice and clean and running well, your should run Windows update and if you are using Microsoft Office, install updates for that too.

14. DEFRAG HARD DRIVE – Even though many claim that defragmenting in Windows XP is not required, I still like to run this after I have performed all the previous steps. START > ALL PROGRAMS > ACCESSORIES > SYSTEM TOOLS > DEFRAGMENTER.

As far as keeping you computer clean on a regular basis between yearly maintenance procedures, the main thing is to make sure all of your Antivirus and Antispyware software is always up-to-date, install all Windows Security Updates and delete your temporary files monthly. If you have any manual scanners such as AdAware or SpyBot, you need to run these monthly as well.

There are some all inclusive software packages such as Norton 360, Microsoft One Care and McAfee Total Care that can perform many of these tasks automatically for you, but if your computer is less than state of the Art and has limited memory, many of these can really slow your computer down to a crawl.

There are many other things you can do to tune and tweak your system for better performance but this is already getting too long so I will stop here. However, I should mention that there is nothing that compares to a complete reinstall of Windows for cleaning out the cobwebs. I personally do this about every 2 years.
Also, during your spring cleaning, you really want to remove any dust that could be interfering with the proper cooling of your computer. Turn off your computer and unplug the power cord before cleaning. Remove the side cover and Vacuum out all vents and using a can of compressed air, blow out any dust that has accumulated on any heat sinks and fans inside. Note: You can damage the fans by spinning them too quickly with compressed air, so it is a good idea to stick a pencil in between the blades to keep them from spinning. Just don’t forget to remove the pencil before you turn your computer back on.

Good Luck!

Wayland Computer

Reply for Sandy H:, re: system cleanup


Well, first, you do not have 200MB of memory, because memory only comes in “power of two” chunks. I suspect that you meant that you have a 200 Gigabyte hard drive, an entirely different thing altogether from having a 200MB memory size.

But, that statement does suggest to me that maybe you would be well off to consider getting some professional assistance with part of your cleanup. When someone who doesn’t know the difference between an engine and a transmission suggests doing an engine overhaul themselves, the idea of getting some help seems worthwhile. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t do anything, or even quite a bit, yourself.

And since you mentioned speed and memory, if you are running Windows XP, and if your computer has less than 512 megabytes of memory (for example, if it has only 256MB), one thing that should be on your list is expanding the memory in your computer to at least 512MB. If you can go all the way to a gigabyte of memory (that’s 1,024 megabytes), so much the better (up to a gigabyte, more memory will make things faster, but if you are below 512MB, then you are probably “memory starved” and increasing the memory may make a truly dramatic difference). If you do add memory, you need to determine if your system already has, or (even if it doesn’t) is capable of supporting “dual channel memory”, because if you add memory incorrectly to a system which is dual channel capable, you can cut the speed of the memory system in half (and, conversely, if the system supports dual channel memory but it’s not currently operating in a dual channel mode, you have an opportunity, by reconfiguring the memory, to double the speed of the memory system). The details of this are more involved than I can go into here (it would literally be a question unto itself), but it’s an area that any competent professional can analyze and advise you on. It depends on your motherboard and what memory you currently have installed.

Now, as to system cleanup and optimization:

First, it’s kind of important to know what data files you have and where they reside. So some “poking around” -- just looking --- may be a good investment of time. In some cases, you may want to move and/or consolidate things in a more organized directory structure, so that all of your related data files are all together. This is also an excellent time to make a backup of your important data files, just on general principles, but also, to an extent, because an error in trying to “clean up” a system sometimes inadvertently erases important files.

Another thing to do before you start is to create a system restore point, again, so that if something gets badly screwed up, you can revert to your “pre-cleanup” system. Note, however, that system restore only saves your system files ... it does not save or backup your data files, so back those up yourself, separately.

So on to the cleanup itself .....

First, run “Windows Update” and download and install all critical updates, and the various optional software and hardware updates as appropriate (this does not mean to install all of the non-critical updates; you need to have some understanding of what this stuff is to make these judgments, and in some instances this requires more knowledge than many users have).

Similarly, update and reconfigure as necessary, your Anti-Virus and Anti-Spyware software.

Now, run a complete virus and spyware scan (this will take hours, quite often, but it’s mostly self-running and unattended). Your problems could be caused by virus’ or “malware”, although there don’t appear to be any specific symptoms of that in your description.

Next, find your “Temp” folder and clean it out. In general, there should be almost nothing in that folder immediately after booting when nothing is running. Then empty the recycle bin. [You will want to repeat both of these steps at the end of the process, because additional cleanup will likely re-clutter the temp folder and refill the recycle bin.]

Now the most likely cause of your “slowness” is a combination of startup software and possibly a very bloated Windows registry.

Attacking startup software first, the general idea is to remove all software that you don’t need and don’t use, but especially things that run some of their components constantly in the background, loading them at startup. I’d start by opening “Control Panel”, add/remove software, and looking through every item listed to see whether it can be removed. DO NOT remove something if you don’t know what it is, you can “break” your system. But there may be things that you know that you can remove, that you are not using and will not use, and if so, remove them. A professional will recognize things that you don’t, but at the same time it’s your system, and there may be things there that you will recognize that a professional won’t. Not everything in “add/remove software” runs startup tasks or impacts performance, but enough things do that if you have software installed that you know that you neither use nor need, it’s worth removing.

Following this, you want to use the three tools MSCONFIG (start / run / MSCONFIG, then the “startup” tab), System Information (start / programs / accessories / system tools / system information) and task manager (control-alt-delete) to see exactly what is being loaded and run after you reboot your system with no actual user programs running at all. Most Windows systems will have 50 to 100 “things” (programs, services, etc.) running, and some people will find that they have several hundred. In most cases, it is these things that are slowing you down and killing your startup time. Knowing which of these you need and which you can get rid of (and how to do it) is a complex subject and this is another area where some more professional knowledge can come in handy. [And even professionals often resort to “Google searches” to find out exactly what some of these modules are and how, if it is appropriate, to either remove them or stop them from loading.] This can be a time consuming process (if you have 100 to 300 items loading up, it’s going to take some time to just review what they are), but it’s probably the step that will produce the greatest results.

Finally, you may want to use a “registry cleaner” to remove unused data from your registry. Pretty much every program that you have ever run or installed (even just once) makes entries into the registry, and usually these entries do not all go away even when you remove the program. While these entries may do no actual active harm, the simple fact that they make the registry larger makes the system slower by itself, and some of the entries may also be actively harmful. However, attempting to “clean” the registry can also do damage (you may accidentally remove registry data that is necessary ... the system can be so badly damaged that it won’t even boot), so, again, some level of professional knowledge may be helpful to do this safely (and, sometimes, the best judgment is to not do it at all).

One thing that I did not suggest that many people put near the top of their list is disk defragmentation. I used to defragment drives religiously, but in today’s world of NTFS rather than FAT32 partitions, I don’t find that it really makes that much difference (doesn’t make any difference at all that I actually perceive in most cases), Windows does it (to some degree) in the background, and like directory cleaning, it is a process that carries with it some risk in and of itself. But many people (other professionals) still recommend and do it, so it will often be “on the list”, in which case if you are going to do it at all, do it last, since all of the other stuff will “refragment” the drive if defragmentation is not done last.

The ultimate Windows cleanup, and it is sometimes either necessary or the best overall approach, is a total reinstallation of Windows and your application software from scratch. However, that is a drastic step that I usually only recommend when the system is truly broken, and from your description, that isn’t your case at this time.

I hope that this has been helpful,

Barry Watzman

Submitted by: Watzman

In reply to: Advice for a clean start on a brand-new computer by Lee Koo (ADMIN)  Moderator

Here are the selected submissions grouped in one post. Read through them and place your votes in the newsletter poll.


Just a Little Loving Care

Congratulations for being able to last this long with Windows ME. Most users gave up long ago trying to keep it running. I obviously don’t know the exact type of problems you have had in the past, but I am willing to bet that most of the responsibility lies with the operating system rather than something you were or were not doing.

I am often accused of giving out way too much information filled with over complicated instructions so I have decided to offer both the short and long version. I have always felt that if someone takes the time to ask a question of this forum and is willing to wait a week or two to get all the answers, then they deserve as much information as possible.

You should be able to enjoy your computer and keep it in good working order for many years by following these 5 simple steps:
1. PROTECTION - Install a good full featured Internet Security Software Package that includes a minimum of Antivirus, Antispyware and Firewall. Always keep an eye on it to make sure it is still working, up-to-date and NEVER let it expire.
2. MAINTENANCE - Once every few months run Disk Clean to clear your computer of unwanted temporary files, install Windows Updates and vacuum or blow out all the dust from the back of your computer once a year.
3. CAUTION - Be very cautious about where you surf, what you download and opening email attachments.
4. SHARING - Do not let anyone else use your computer. This includes family members and especially children and teenagers. Just kidding… Ah, Not really.
5. BACKUP - Come up with some kind of backup strategy that meets your specific needs for preserving your data in case something goes wrong.

For those of you who don’t mind getting your hands a little dirty and want to go that extra mile to improve your odds of achieving years of trouble free computing at the maximum performance level.

1. INITIAL CLEANING – Depending on the exact make and model, your new computer probably came with tons of pre-installed trial, free and junk software. All of this stuff can slow down even the fastest computer as well as take up room on your hard drive . Take your time and go through every program that is listed in ALL PROGRAMS and determine what you want and don’t want. Uninstall everything that you do not need. Leave anything that you are not absolutely sure about. Better still, next time consider purchasing a business class computer from someone like Dell Small Business, Fujutsu, Lenovo (IBM) or some other dealer that specializes in selling to the business user. True Business computers do not come with all of the extra junk pre-installed.

2. INITIAL SETUP – The next thing you need to do is decide how and who will be using your new computer. You may want to setup User accounts and passwords, if needed, for everyone that will be using your computer. It is best to setup all children with their own accounts with NON-administrative rights. This way they will be less likely to make changes or install things that might affect the operation of your computer. I you are a forward thinker and like to plan ahead for potential disasters, I might even recommend repartitioning your hard drive to keep data and operating system separated from each other (details for another time). This is also a good time to decide how and who may need to share files and folders as well as make any internet security or privacy settings changes to each account. For example you may want to restrict internet access or filter internet content for children’s accounts. I also normally recommend setting Windows Updates so that I have a choice as to when updates get installed instead of automatically.

3. PROTECTION – You absolutely need some form of security software installed on your computer to protect you from viruses, spyware and other nasties that linger out in cyberspace or come attached to your emails. At the very least you will need a good Antivirus program, however I highly recommend having 1 antivirus, 1 firewall and 3 antispyware programs installed. If you like you can purchase an all-in-one package that includes many levels of protection in one package such as McAfee Total Protection, Norton 360 or even Microsoft Windows Live OneCare. Keep in mind that installing any of these all-in-one packages can really slow down your computer, especially on a slightly older or entry level computers. Chances are that your computer came packaged with some trial version of Norton or McAfee Internet Security. These will normally expire in about 30 days or so and must be renewed to continue protecting your computer. Before you actually fork out any money, check out all the possibilities that may be available to you. Many internet service providers will offer free security software to you just for the asking. Comcast, for example, offers free McAfee to its users. AOL has a free offering as well. Many colleges offer free protection software to their students and many companies offer security software to their employees. Be careful some providers like Verizon may make it sound like they are offering it for free but will charge you a monthly fee tacked on to your bill. If you don’t mind digging in and working a little there are many ways to get free security software as well. You can put together a great security net with Free Programs like Avast, AVG, SpyBot, Microsoft Defender, ZoneAlarm and AdAware. No matter which way you decide to go, the most important thing is to always check to make sure your security software is working, updated and has not expired. Beware of security contracts that will automatically charge your credit card every year for renewal even if you are no longer using their software.

4. MAINTENANCE – You do not need to get totally carried away but a little maintenance can go a long way toward keeping your computer in good working order.

a. Running Disk Cleanup once a month or so.
b. Check Disk with Error Checking every few months.
c. Run Disk Defragmenter about every 6 months.
d. Update and Run any manual spyware scanners each month.
e. Run Windows Update if it is not set to Automatic.
f. Check for other updates for your computer every few months.
g. Clean the dust out of all cooling vents at least once per year.
h. If you plan to keep your computer, I will often recommend replacing the hard drive every 3 or 4 years whether it needs it or not. A new hard drive costs about $100 (that comes out to less than $30 per year). Being one of the few moving parts in a modern computer, it WILL fail at some point. Replacing it while it is still in working condition is much easier than waiting for it to fail. You can Recycle the old drive if you really want by purchasing a USB enclosure for about $29 and using it as a spare backup drive.

5. CAUTION – Always exercise extreme caution when surfing the internet, clicking on links or opening email. All of these have the potential of not only infecting your computer with viruses and spyware but could also result in handing over your personal information to less than desirable people. Take note of any changes to your computer and don’t just automatically click on allow, ok or continue when Windows or your security software is warning you about a system change.

6. SHARING – I know we were all taught to share while growing up, but if you want your computer to stay in tip top shape, DO NOT SHARE YOUR COMPUTER with anyone.

7. BACKUP – I know everyone is sick of hearing about the importance of backing up your data. I you have information on your computer that you don’t want to lose, then back it up. There are so many ways available now to backup, there is simply no excuse anymore for getting caught when a hard drive decides to quit. Enough said!

In briefing through some of the other threads, I notice that I totally forgot to mention the importance of the Surge protector. I guess since you were upgrading from a previous computer, I assumed you already had one. Surge Protectors can go bad over time from repeated surges and should be tested or replaced. But better still is the UPS (Uninterruptible Power Supply). A UPS is probably one of the best investments you can make for a computer. It contains a surge protector and a battery backup that will take over in the event of a power failure or brownout and continue to power your computer for several minutes or even hours if you purchase a really large one. If your power does not return within a predetermined period of time you can program it to shut down your computer in an orderly fashion thus preventing a possible major disaster. A single event such as loss of power or a lightning strike can cause irreparable damage and data loss if it occurs at just the right time or I should say at just the wrong time. Power surges can have the potential to not only cause immediate damage but can become accumulative and cause what is know as latent failures. This is where each surge stresses some of the components within the computer, weakening them and eventually causing them to fail at a later date. The price of UPS units has fallen over the years and you can get a small one for about $50 that will power your computer and LCD monitor for 10-15 minutes. If you live in an area where power outages are more common, you might want to go for one of the higher end models.
Enjoy your new computer!

Wayland Computer

Submitted by: waytron

Welcome to the OS jump club, Maria.

I’m doing a similar transition myself but for me it’s from Win98 to Vista. It’s a big jump and I haven’t worked it all out yet but I will try and relay to you some of what I have run into. By the way I bought ME but never got around to installing it.

Vista needs the hard drive to function smoothly just as in previous version of Windows. So in many ways not much has changed. You still need to run Defrag, ScanDisk (CHKDSK for Vista), and Disk Cleanup. So when do you do these tasks? Disk cleanup should be done daily if you use IE7, but maybe only twice a week if you use a more secure browser such as FireFox. I defrag every 6 months minium but on my gamer PC I defrag about once a week or once a game crash. Vista calls for a weekly defrag as its default setting. Basically, if you cut and paste large files and delete large files a lot when using your computer defrag more often. CHKDSK is more of an event call for function. Here is what I mean. If the computer is shut down abnormally run the CHKDSK. If a program closes incorrectly run the CHKDSK. To do a quick check on your hard drive health run the CHKDSK. This covers the very basic maintenance that helps keep software and hardware running. To get to the menu were you can do these tasks, =>Start button=>Computer then right click on the hard drive icon, select properties, looking at the top you will see menu tabs,=>Tools tab. This gets you Defrag and ScanDisk function, General tab gets you cleanup function. Watch out, the terms for defrag and ScanDisk are deferent. User Account Control will be popping up asking “are sure you want to do this” as you make your way through the steps to perform these tasks. UAC is annoying but it’s part of the Vista experience and so I feel one should work with it but it can be turned off. Save turning off the UAC for when you feel you don’t need it anymore.

Under the Tools tab, the run defrag now button will open a window which lets you pick run now or run on a schedule time automatically. If you hit run now you will see a spinning ring(it was an hour glass in Win98) and that is about it. If you look at your Hard drive’s activity light it will be flashing quickly. It could take minutes or hours to complete the defrag process. Vista does not provide the screen of defrag dots like in Win98, so now there is little to watch.

In Vista ScanDisk is now replaced by check disk (CHKDSK) which can be run by clicking its scan now button in the error-checking menu (also found on the Tool’s tab). You will then be asked if you want “automatically fix file system errors” and or “scan for and attempt recovery of bad sectors”, by default the “automatically fix file system errors” is checked. That is because this is the most common way to run the scan. It’s used to fix minor problems an example would be after improper shut down. Checking the other box will scan the hard drive’s surface and recover data from bad sectors by moving them to undamaged sectors. You would run the scan with this option if a previous scan reported bad sectors. If you need this function your hard drive is most likely on its way out. Once you have the correct boxes checked for the type of scan you want click the run button where upon you will then be told to schedule the scan to happen at the next restart. Agree to the schedule and hit restart in the usual way. The computer will shut down and then start the scan (you get a few seconds to cancel the scan) before Vista boots up. Read the report. Look for bad sectors and if it fixed errors. Read fast because Vista will boot shortly after the scan is complete. If you see bad sectors you will want to make a backup (more about this later) and have the hard drive replaced by a pro or replace it yourself.

Disk cleanup is available on the General tab, the tab just before the Tools tab. It’s very straight forward. Check the boxes beside what you want cleaned out, deleted. This is where you can remove cookies, Internet temporary files, clear history, clear out the temporary folder, and clear out the recycle bin all at once. This frees up disk space and also removes some problematic files (cookies).

What follows gets deeper into defense ware, hardware longevity, ease of use, organization techniques, ways to stay informed, and disaster preparedness.

The computer area is often and after thought. Vista requires more computer power to do its job which means, your new computer needs its air vents clear. Heat can slow performance and age your computer prematurely. Air flow keeps the heat moving out of the computer, block the vents and the heat stays inside cooking the hardware. Find the computer‘s air vents, look on the sides, front and back. Once you locate the vents never block them. Locate the computer in a cool dry clean quite area. Avoid direct sun light on the computer case and also avoid direct air flow from heating and air conditioning vents.

Sometimes a change in the way a computer sounds maybe the first clue to a failing part. Unlike your old ME computer which most likely made a constant steady noise from its fans, your newer Vista computer’s motherboard and power supply may have fan speed control to help regulate temperature. Under heavy usage, the fans may roar at you. Under light use it will sound like your old ME computer with its fans at a steady speed. When I made my first full system backup the computers fans were very loud due to the heat build up caused by the DVD burner and hard drive working hard at the same time. Because I was not familiar with the fan speed change, noise level change, it scared me until I realized what was happening was correct and a good thing.

Having space enough in you computer area for expansion and servicing are good things too. As you add devices more space is needed just to locate them in a safe usable manner. Here is an example, your new printer only has a 2 foot USB cable. That does not mean it’s a okay to set the printer on the same surface as your new computer. The printer head movements will cause vibrations that can increase ware on delicate devices in your new computer. In this case it would be wise to locate the printer else where by getting a longer USB cable and perhaps mounting an adjustable shelf system to a near by wall and placing the printer there (if you already use a wireless LAN, then look into a wireless printer). Just as you need enough room around the printer for installing new ink cartridges, you will also need enough room around the computer case to be able to open it. To do this you need to know how your new computer’s case opens. Check the manual for this info. If you can’t find it in the manual, try looking for instructions on the case. While you are at it, look for warranty tamper stickers a long the case removal points. If you find one of these stickers then you should not open the case without first checking your warranty rights. For now, you just want to have enough space a service person or yourself can open the case without much trouble.

The last time I tried to find my warranty and service numbers I spent more time looking for the paperwork than making the service call. I strongly recommend that you file the computer’s paperwork using a filing cabinet or at least one of those big accordion folders that has compartments that are alphabetized. This will organize the paperwork and as long as you don’t loose the folder or file cabinet you have everything in one place. One note you should write and put in this filing system is a list of the numbers found on the computer case. The list should have the serail number, Vista program key, exact model number, and the date code if there is one. I write this info inside the cover of the user manual and also on what I refer to as a “Call Sheet”. The Call Sheet comes in handy when calling tech support. Tech support will almost always ask for some of this info. I usually write the tech support number on the call sheet as well. File the Call Sheet under “C”, the manual under “M” and the warranty under “W”. Well you get the idea. With the filing system in place you can store notes on your software installations. For example when you installed your anti-virus, did you use custom install or typical, did you need an update or patch, did it take more then one re-boot before the software was fully functional, was there a licence key number and were there any error codes. Organize the note taking even further by giving your notes dates and time stamps and get your terminology as correct as possible and then be consistent with it through out your notes. This will really help when things go wrong. Tip, I also store the software CDs in the folder with my install notes for that software.

Another thing that helps when things go wrong, the boxes that the computer came in. These boxes are designed to protect the computer while in shipment and can come in handy on moving day or if you have to ship it back to the manufacturer. If you are like me and find it hard to re-pack things in their shipping boxes try taking pictures when you first un-box a new piece of equipment. Well you get the idea.
One piece of hardware that helps with computer longevity is the UPS. That is an un-interruptible power supply, also known as a battery backup. This device plugs into the wall outlet and your new computer plugs into it. The device cleans up the noise in the power lines so your new computer is not damaged by power surges and brown outs. I use a device from APC for protection from power surges and brown outs and it also shields my Internet connection.

Vista ships with some software protection programs such as a firewall and malware remover (Windows Defender). I still feel safer with a more complete main stream anti-virus package and have used Symantec but now am using McAfee. When I made the change from Symantec to McAfee, Windows Defender stepped in during the swap out but did not cause a crash. The install went well and so far I have had no problems.

You may need to re-schedule some of these defense programs. As an example, Windows Defender by default scans your computer at 2 AM every 24 hours. If your computer is not turned on at that time you need to re-schedule Defender to run when the computer is on. For now, I run these programs while I’m present because I want to see them in action. I will continue to look for tools to block bad sites and read reviews for leads to better protection products and methods for working security in Vista. I have already installed FireFox as my second browser because I felt so uncomfortable with IE7. I have used IE7 but have found the Add-ons (plug-ins) strange because I’m use to IE6 having things already there. To stay with the Vista experience, I forced myself to hang with IE7. Under the Tools menu in IE7 there is a button “Manage Add-ons”, go there to deal with Add-ons so things like Flash animation will work.

Disaster, damage control, and repair or replace are topics of interest In Vista. Only some versions of Vista support full system backup unfortunately the version you and I have isn’t one of them, Home Premium. Understanding what tools Vista provides for recovery will help you plan for recovery before things go wrong with your Vista computer. Home Premium dose support backup of YOUR files but not system files. This means you can copy YOUR files and save those copies to another medium such as an external hard drive, DVD, or even another internal drive. Sometimes your files become corrupted or lost or if a component in your computer fails such as the hard drive, motherboard, or power supply, you could use these backup copies of your files by putting them on a replacement computer or your repaired computer and get back to it. Although a lot of details are missing from this process it’s still a disaster recovery plan (a whole post subject all by itself ).

System file repairs are covered by restore points. In Vista the restore point system goes under the title System Protection. System Protection is a way to return your computer’s system files back to a point in time where they were not damaged/corrupted/changed by the installation of a software program or driver installation. Vista’s System Protection uses restore points which use shadow copies and stored registry settings to put the system back the way it was. If the computer won’t boot, I mean it so corrupted it won’t start, the System Protection can’t be used. Both the backup and System Protection in Vista are limited which means you may have to fall back to the manufacturer supplied restore system. Sometimes this is an OEM OS disk and driver disk or they can be combined into a recovery disk set, and sometimes it’s just a few CDs or DVDs you burned yourself using software supplied by the computer manufacturer. That covers the minimum for a recovery plan but I recommend that you take additional steps and supply your own restore system. This entails buying your own backup device/system that is Vista compatible (a whole post subject all by itself ).

Try test driving the warranty by reading it with the intent of doing it. See what it will cost to ship your new computer to the repair center. It may cost more to ship it than to have it fixed locally. You may find that some components have a longer warranty than the computer. To find out you will need to call tech support so think of this call as a test drive of tech support. Many of the warranties I have read also indicate that only the software the computer came with is warrantied. So if it turns out it was software you put in that caused the problem it’s not a warranty repair. Any part you have added by opening the case may void the entire warranty. This is the main reason I recommend living with the out of the box computer till the warranty period is over. Try leaving Vista in its default state as long as you can stand it. If you feel too lost Vista does have a classic mode. I also recommend that you hang on to your old ME computer till you feel comfortable with Vista.

Staying informed is one way to keep finding better ways to get around in Vista. You will need to understand some of the terminology and get a feel for the lingo. Here is an example, Microsoft lingo “restore point”, for me it would be “go back after repair point” and if I Geeked it that would become GBARP. IMHO these lingoes can be hard to work around, but most of the time you can plug them into a search and come up with the meaning. Use search to find clues to work-arounds and problem fixes. Reading forum posts that are working on the same or similar problem can clue you in on lingo and terminology. Don’t forget about the “Dummies Books” and the PC magazines that are good sources of info and terminology definitions.

My approach is to plan for problems. This may seem to be a negative approach but it’s more like being prepared by reducing the surprises and knowing what to. I call it damage control. As more comfort is gained with the new computer and operating system, the tendency will be to scale back the approach. That is okay. If problems seem to be coming out of the wood work, then just scale the approach back up. Just do what fits. View yourself as your own client. Is it time well spent? What is it going to cost? Can I go on without this software or device? Is repair or replace the issue? It’s your call. I leave you with some of the links I have found helpful.

Links for General Info and Cnet online Vista Courses.

Links for Disabling Unnecessary Programs in Vista.

Submitted by bus

Maintaining a healthy system

Congratulations on finally getting rid of the headache that was Windows ME. Vista is a big improvement for you. Let me preface my message by saying that I am fresh out of college, so my advice caters best to the frugal-minded.

The most important thing hardware-wise is a surge protector. A lightning storm could fry most of the hardware inside your computer, and often you have to buy a whole new one. How much you spend on this depends on how paranoid you are about losing your brand new computer. I'd say you'll be perfectly fine taking $10 into Radio Shack and getting the best one you can for that amount of money. My computer has lasted through many a power surge with one of these simple power strips. The only other item I can think to recommend is a can of compressed air so you can keep your air circulation at a maximum and components as free of dust as possible. You'll want to move the computer outside for that, of course.

Now, there is plenty to say about software. First of all, did your Dell come with all the pre-installed software that usually comes with new computers? Dell has given its customers the option to not have all that trial software installed, but if you don't specifically select that option, your computer is probably far more bloated and slow than it needs to be. When I bought my laptop, the first thing I did was just completely reinstall Vista. It may be a bit extreme to some, but it was the quickest way for me to get rid of all the free trial software computer manufacturers so graciously infest new systems with (and to create extra partitions for Linux). If it's also too extreme for you, go to "Start > Control Panel > Programs and Features" and start ridding yourself of every piece of trial software you have, because you don't need it.

Now lets go over specific software:

Internet browsers:
There is one thing for which Internet Explorer should be used. Just one, single thing. And that is going to In the latest PC Mag, there was an interview with some infamous hacker who hacked into the Pentagon when he was 15. Near the end of the article, he was asked what the most common security hole he's seen. His last sentence? "Oh - and don't use Internet Explorer." Aside from just being safer, there are tons of add-ons that make Firefox a better browser. Some people swear by Opera as well, so it is also worth mentioning.

On a related note, if you are using Outlook Express...stop! Using it is even worse than using Internet Explorer. Mozilla Thunderbird is a good free email client, which I use to fetch my email from my ancient AOL email account. The only reason I use it is because AOL has a horribly slow and annoying webmail interface. There are plenty of choices for webmail that are better in that regard and have ample online storage. Google's Gmail is, in my opinion, the best webmail around. It is really good at identifying spam and notifying you exactly why they think it is spam. I also have a Yahoo webmail account and a Windows Live Hotmail account which are both pretty good.

Security software:
In this very newsletter a few months back there was a Q&A about free security software, where it was shown that the old saying, "you get what you pay for," doesn't always apply. There is little need to spend any money, but people still do simply because it makes them feel more comfortable. Anyway, the point is, I'm going to focus on free software, and you can find everything I mention at or here at CNET.

Anti-virus - You mentioned that you've already got anti-virus, which is a great first step. But for completeness, I'll still go through the options. In the paid subscription world, I can only recommend NOD32. If you are going to spend any money at all, then go for the best, and this is repeatedly proven to have among the highest detection and cleansing performance around. On the free side, the choices with real-time protection (always running, making sure you don't download any viruses) are AVG Free Edition (my personal choice), Avast! Home Edition, and AntiVir Personal. Avast requires (free) registration and AntiVir shows you an ad for its paid edition each time you use it, so I mainly use AVG, but I've used all three before and they work well. You may even want an additional on-demand only (NOT real-time) virus scanner, like BitDefender Free Edition, but I found that I hardly used it, and when I did, it found nothing.

Anti-Spyware - Windows Defender is a surprisingly good piece of software (Microsoft bought a company that made the software and renamed it), So that should be your first line of defense. Combine it with an on-demand scanner like Ad-aware for best results. Ad-aware often flags things that aren't really all that harmful, so don't be too alarmed if it finds a ton of "infections." It catches the ones that count, so that's all that matters.

Firewall - The default Windows Firewall in Vista is supposedly better than the one in XP, which was pretty much entirely useless. Unfortunately, my preferred third-party firewall, Comodo, has not yet made a Vista-compatible version. ZoneAlarm doesn't give you as much control, but they have a version for Windows Vista. You have to go to their site to get it though. As is typical for these security software providers, they like to hide the fact that they have a free version. Here is a link, but if you go to it, make sure you click on "I only want basic ZoneAlarm protection" at the bottom. Personally I don't use my Vista install all too much, so I'm still using Windows Firewall while I wait for Comodo's Vista version. Note that I also have a router, which if you have broadband internet, you should too. It can act as a hardware firewall if you take the time to set it up right. Using both a hardware and software firewall is the best combination here.

Maintenance Utilities:
One of my favorite pieces of software to recommend to Windows users is CCleaner. It removes unused and "temporary" files that just eat up your hard drive space. Make sure you pay attention if you install though, because by default it includes Yahoo Toolbar and several unnecessary options, like adding it to context menus (the right-click menus) and running on start-up. As long as it's got a start-up menu folder, that's all you need. But aside from just cleaning your file system, you can use it to uninstall programs and clean up your registry as well.

Another program I usually recommend keeping handy is HijackThis. It logs all the changes to particularly vulnerable locations on your computer. Run it whenever you think something is wrong, and then post the log on any computer support forum so an expert can take a look and recommend a course of action.

Office software:
I'm only going over this because it relates to the pre-installed software I mentioned before. Did you get Microsoft Works 8 with your computer? Get rid of it, because it's slow and featureless, and you can get much better software for the same amount of money. is free, open source, and very good if you need an entire suite - including word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation software. Abiword is an excellent Microsoft Word replacement as well. They can both save documents in Microsoft's proprietary formats if needed. Microsoft Office should only be purchased as a last resort.

That's about all I've got software-wise. Other than that, just some general advice - only download stuff from sources you trust, whether it be software I mentioned or a picture in an email. FileHippo is a great site to keep up with the latest free software; you may want to browse it a bit and look for software you might like. The selection is much sparser than it is here, but it's all safe; I've seen my share of problems with some of the more obscure choices available here. And I'm sure you know, but I'll reiterate that you should be careful with email. Aside from viruses taking over your friend's computers and sending you emails and instant messages with disguised copies of itself, the spammers and scammers are getting ever more clever in their schemes. Keep a "junk" webmail account, where, whenever you sign up for or buy anything online, use that email address. That way, unless you're waiting for a receipt or confirmation number from an online order, you can delete everything in there without worrying you are missing something.

And lastly, once you've got a setup that you like, be sure to use the backup utilities occasionally, or whenever you about to make a major change in either hardware or software. Especially with your personal data. While re-installing everything from scratch can be a daunting task, it is possible. Losing your only copy of personal data like pictures from your digital camera, however, can be irreversible and heart-breaking.

Worrying about security and maintenance can be a major headache, but do it right the first time and you should be okay for a long time. I hope I helped somewhat, and I hope you enjoy your new purchase.

Submitted by ucphenom82