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

by: Lee Koo (ADMIN) April 26, 2007 12:18 PM PDT

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How do I get my PC back in shape?

by Lee Koo (ADMIN) ModeratorCNET staff - 4/26/07 12:18 PM


To my online virtual family of help, I'm in the spring cleaning mood and I've cleaned my house already, but now it's time to face the chore that I have been dreading for a long time. That is cleaning up my two-year old Dell computer with XP, which I think has 200MB of memory, but I'm not absolutely sure. I need to face the music and do this because it is getting slower and slower every time I attempt to use it. Programs take a long time to load and just booting up Windows takes an eternity. I'm not a technical person, but I'm a fast learner, so your assistance would be most grateful. I need some straightforward guidelines (not too technical if possible) on how I can clean up my computer to make it run faster, and once I clean it up--do whatever it takes to continually keep my computer in tip-top shape, so when the spring season comes around again, I'm not looking at a chore that I hate doing again. Thanks for your help.

Submitted by Sandy H. of Des Moines, Iowa

Answer voted most helpful by our members

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 Microsofts 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, lets 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 cant 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 dont forget to remove the pencil before you turn your computer back on.

Good Luck!

Wayland Computer

Submitted by Dana H. (aka waytron)

If you have any additional advice or recommendations for Sandy, let's hear them. Click on the "Reply" link to post. Please be detailed as possible in your answer. Thanks!

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