Tech Talk: Zen and the art of computer maintenance

Murphy’s First Law of Motion says: If it moves, it will break. Or if it doesn’t exactly break, it will malfunction or maybe just slow to the point where it might as well have broken. That’s why we perform periodic maintenance on cars, trucks, and equipment. Computers are no different, although somehow we expect them to run forever. Dream on.
In contrast to the hefty books on computer care, I’m going to cover just a few fundamentals, none of which will require that you spend significant money or possess significant expertise. I assume that you are running Microsoft Windows XP and Office 2003. Other vendors have parallel capabilities. Corrections and additions to the following suggestions are welcome. In preparing this guide, I was advised by Wesley W. Will, proprietor of Can-Do! Computing, Carbondale, Ill., a consultant in information technology.
Step One is where the Zen (or your preferred religious faith) comes in. I’m going to preach to you: Back up your data. Your files should have been organized to reside in one folder — My Documents — so the job should be easy. Just drag that one folder onto your preferred storage medium: DVD, CD, jump drive, floppy disks, tape — it doesn’t matter which one, just do it. One day, you’ll bless me for nagging you.
If you’re the worrying kind, make two back-up copies, and store one of them off-site. If you’re the forgetful kind, you can set the computer to make back-up copies automatically (Start/All Programs/Accessories/System Tools/Scheduled Tasks).
How often should you back up your data? The answer depends on how much work you are prepared to lose. Stop reading right now and do it.
Or you can let Windows guide you through the back-up procedure (Start/All Programs/Accessories/System Tools/Backup). This adds some data not in your My Documents folder, such as Favorites, Cookies and Desktop. It also offers an option — highly recommended — to create a system recovery disk that can be used to restart your computer after a major failure.
Of course, you can back up your programs, too, but that probably will require a lot of space, and it might be unnecessary, because you kept copies of your program discs where you can find them, right? Right?
Separately, back up the Contacts section of your e-mail program. Go to File/Import and Export/Export to a file. This is also a good time to remove or archive old items from your Inbox and to empty your Deleted folder. In Outlook, go to Tools/Mailbox Cleanup. While you’re in Outlook, check your rules for blocking spam. Go to Actions/Junk E-mail and review the options.
Another good step to take before making any significant change in your computer — even just installing a new program — is to set a restore point, which functions like a comprehensive Undo command. It will take you back to the last restore point you set. The function also can be found under System Tools, as can Disk Cleanup, which will give you the option to delete old files and programs that haven’t been used recently.
If your computer is more than a year old, a lot of dust and crud probably has built up inside. Open the case and ground yourself by touching metal on the exterior of the case. Then, with a soft, dry paint brush, find the vents and the fans that keep the interior from overheating. Gently brush them. Some users prefer to pick up the dust with a vacuum cleaner; others prefer to buy canned air to blow away the dust.
To determine if your hard drive has significant physical errors, run Scandisk by clicking Start/My Computer. Then right-click on the icon for your hard drive and select Properties. Click on the Tools tab and select Error-checking. The General tab will show you graphically how full your hard drive is. A drive that is full or almost full will run slower than one with plenty of room. If your drive is running short of room, you can either add another drive or you can select Defragment, also under the Tools tab. Defragmenting uses the hard drive more efficiently by gathering bits of space and consolidating them. The same menu offers another way to back up your data. Scanning and defragging might take a while, so set them to run over night.
Visit the Windows Security Center through Start/Control Panel/Security Center and make sure that Firewall, Automatic Updates, and Virus Protection are turned on.
If you’re not running an anti-virus program, you probably should get one and set it for automatic updates, at least once a week. Viruses can be nasty, inflicting damage to your system. Norton and McAfee are the big names in virus protection, and either is recommended (but not both).
Spyware is one of the curses of computing. These programs lurk in the background, tracking your every action and even hijacking the computer for wrongful purposes, such as using it to send spam. The worst problems are not damage or loss of privacy; it’s the way spyware slows legitimate functions by pre-empting your computer for its own purposes. The most commonly recommended safeguards are Ad-Aware and Spybot. Both are free, although donations are requested. Both are recommended to be used together. You can get them from www.download.com.
Do you need to bother with protection against malware (virus and spy attacks)? A free check-up is available from www.housecall.trendmicro.com. The scan will take about an hour. Another diagnostic utility, available free from www.liutilities.com, will scan your registry, the computer’s nerve center, for obsolete entries. A similar free utility, regcleaner.exe, is available from www.download.com. Don’t run either of them, or mess with the registry, without first setting a system restore point and creating a restore disk.
Next, clean out your Cookies file. Cookies automatically answer repetitive questions asked by Internet sites you visit: questions such as your name, address, password, etc. Run Internet Explorer and from the pull-down menu, select Tools/Internet Options. From the General Tab, Temporary Internet Files, choose Delete Cookies. From the same menu you can select Clear History and set it for the minimum number of days you find practical.
The next steps are best taken while the computer is running in Safe Mode. Restart the computer and as it boots, keep tapping the F8 key. Select safe mode. The desktop will look large and grainy because Safe Mode loads only essential utilities. It also provides a convenient diagnostic tool. Compare how long it takes to run some function of your choice under Safe Mode and under Normal Mode. Safe Mode will show how fast the program could operate if you get it tuned up properly. If the function you select runs equally fast in both modes, you’re in good shape.
Expect to be shocked at the flotsam and jetsam your computer runs in the background, unbidden by you. Choose Start/Run and type in: msconfig. Select the Startup tab. If you recognize any of the programs in the Startup Item, you qualify for a propeller hat. Your computer actually will run better without most of them. To sort out the essential from the unnecessary, type one of the names — wcescomm, for example — in the search line of your favorite Web browser. You’ll be directed to Uniblue, among other sites, which explains that this file synchronizes your desktop and handheld device. Check the files you want to keep; uncheck the rest.
Making sure that you have the current version of software might provide improvements in performance and security. Most vendors have Web sites that will identify current version numbers. Updates often are free. For example, Microsoft in October released finished versions of Windows Media Player 11 and of Internet Explorer 7. Both are free downloads from www.microsoft.com.
Will, my consultant, proposes ignoring Internet Explorer, the free Microsoft Web browser, and installing Firefox, also a free Web browser but one that is less subject to malware attacks. He also admires the Opera browser, but not Netscape. For the same reasons, he proposes replacing Outlook with Thunderbird unless you’re on a network that schedules meetings through Outlook’s Calendar feature. If not, Thunderbird makes it easy to switch by accepting copies of Outlook files.
More tips are available from the Microsoft Knowledge Base: http://support.microsoft.com/kb/823887. Select the option to Read the transcript. The title is Monitoring and Tuning System Performance in Microsoft Windows XP.
If your computer still isn’t operating with youthful vigor or if a hitch develops, consider posing a question on www.bleepingcomputer.com. No kidding; that’s a legitimate site. You’ll have to create an account and be a little patient, but you’ll probably get a helpful answer.
Staples office supply stores last fall were running a tune-up offer for $9.99. Will’s reaction: “Ugh!” He was suspicious of the low price.
Is your computer still too pokey? You’re not going to like this, but the next step is to reformat your hard drive and reinstall all your programs. My reaction: “Ugh!” I don’t want to do that, especially since Microsoft promises to introduce a new operating system, Vista, early in 2007. You might be able to upgrade your current operating system with Vista, but if your computer is more than two years old, you might be better off upgrading the computer, too, with a new model. Then you can apply a few lessons learned, such as:
– Set a system restore point any time you install a new program, add new hardware or make any major change. If the computer shows any sign of choking, restore the system to its previous condition.
– Put in one special place all the discs and documentation for programs you install and hardware you install. Remember where they are. If you need to reinstall, you’ll be less likely to resist.
– Be skeptical of even helpful programs from reputable sources. You don’t need Acrobat Assistant or Microsoft Office’s FindFast running in the background. The slight advantage they offer is offset by the space and computing cycles they consume.
– Remember that malware is easier to block than to remove.

Oliver Witte teaches journalism at Southern Illinois University. He was the founding editor of AIA’s Architecture Technology magazine and for several years managed the computer-aided architecture evaluation program for Architecture magazine. Contact him at owitte@siu.edu.

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