A Semi-Charmed Life: Mike's Journey

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Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Making your PC Healthy

Keeping Your PC HealthyJuly 22, 2005
By Joel Durham Jr.

Back when I was a repair technician, I was called to rescue a PC whose role was to run a big machine in a tool-and-die shop. It was rebooting randomly and locking up at the worst possible times, causing the machine to make lots of very expensive doorstops. When I opened it up, the motherboard and other components were coated in black dust. As it turns out, the dust consisted of tiny ferrous metal shavings, which were electrically conductive. After a good vacuuming and a wash with electronics cleaner, the PC worked happily again.

I'm not saying that there are metal shavings floating around your house, but even plain old dust can conduct static electricity. When that dust collects on your computer's internal components, it can cause problems. It can also clog fans and air holes, preventing good ventilation. You should clean out your PC every few months to get rid of nasty little contaminants.
As Windows users know, the operating system needs attention, too. The registry bloats, spyware sneaks in, the hard drives—and worse, the paging file—fragment, old data sits around and takes up space, programs you don't want load into memory and eat up clock cycles, trolls take up residence under bridges, and so on. Even Linux users have to update their components' drivers and the software they use or recompile the kernel every now and then.

This complete maintenance system will help you keep your computer running in tip-top shape. Some of these tasks you probably already know, some you may not have thought of; all are collected here for your convenience. Continued... Once in a while, you should disconnect your computer from its power cable and peripherals, lay it gently on your shop bench or a convenient, clean surface, and inspect and clean it thoroughly. Even though your PC's fans are outfitted with filters, dust can creep into the case through ambient air holes—especially if the PC's fans exhaust more air than they take in.

You should keep the outside of your PC's case free of dust either by covering it when it's powered off or by wiping it down with a clean cloth and a bit of rubbing alcohol. Be sure to wipe off the port riser in the rear of the case and the backs of the various expansion cards.
Every six months or so, you should perform a more thorough cleaning and a visual inspection.

Follow these steps:

1. Unplug the computer and open the case. Inspect it carefully for dust bunnies and other pollutants.
2. Remove any parts that you don't use anymore. Doing so will free up system resources, reduce heat, and increase airflow. Have you used that old fax modem since you got broadband? No? Lose it. How about the scanner card (remember scanner cards?) since you got the MFP? Toss it.
3. Grab your shop vacuum cleaner, or any vacuum cleaner with smallish attachments, and vacuum out the whole case. Be sure to pop the front cover off, as dust can collect between it and the chassis. Pay special attention to the fans. Get all the nooks and crannies; if there's a wad of dust you can't suck up with the vacuum, use a can of compressed air to blow it free. Be careful not to suck any jumpers off of the motherboard, storage devices, and expansion cards!
4. Vacuum out the inside of any floppy and tape drives. Use plastic utensil or a pencil with the tip broken off to hold the drive door open, and aim the nozzle of the vacuum right into the drive.
5. If you find dust really caked on, or if one of your fans is clogged, you can hose it out with a can of electronics cleaner. If you don't have any, head to your nearest electronics store (a real electronics store with components and stuff, not a home theater store) and buy a can. Just remember to allow everything to dry thoroughly before plugging it in again.
6. When you're done poking around inside the case, check all of the contacts and connections to be sure you didn't knock something loose. Check all of the drive cables and power cables, and make sure expansion cards and memory modules are fully seated.
7. Finally, with the case open, plug in the PC and turn it on. Inspect all of the fans to be sure they're spinning. Don't forget the fan on the graphics card. Replace any fans that may be laboring or that don't spin at all. Also, if your PC is equipped with liquid cooling, listen to the pump to be sure it's operating smoothly. When it starts to get loud or if you hear a grinding sound or another sign of danger, replace it (or service it, if you know how).
8. Button up the case and power it up. Make sure it POSTs and loads the operating system.


Next, take care of the external peripherals. With a gentle cleaning solution and a clean cloth, wipe down the printer, the scanner, and any other attached hardware. Don't use window cleaner to clean your monitor screen, whether you have an LCD or CRT: It can slowly dissolve antiglare coating or slightly damage or discolor the screen. Instead, try wiping it down with a clean, soft cloth dampened with ordinary water. For stubborn smudges, mix about 1 part rubbing alcohol with 4 parts water and wipe gently.
Don't press too hard on an LCD or you'll damage the pixels.
Regarding keyboard cleaning: Some sites and magazines have recommended that you blow compressed air into the spaces between the keys. I strongly recommend against this. Crumbs and dust that settle between the keys won't harm the contacts between the key switches and the PCB, but if you stir the gunk up by blowing it around, you might cause it to lodge in unfortunate areas and disable a key. If lots of garbage has found its way into your keyboard, pop some of the keys off strategically and dab the junk with a cloth dampened with rubbing alcohol to pick it up.

Clean the top of the mouse with any household cleaner. Then, flip it over and inspect the crevice where the LED is and, if you see dust, clean it out with a swab dipped in 90% rubbing alcohol. Let it dry completely and then polish the opening with the dry end of the swab. If, Heaven forbid, you have a ball mouse, replace it! Or just clean it: pop the ball out, clean it thoroughly with a rag and rubbing alcohol, and use swabs and more rubbing alcohol to clean the rollers inside the little cave where the ball lives. Continued... Next, boot up the operating system and get ready to take the screws to it. Windows users especially have to keep up the OS to keep it running smoothly and free of viruses and spyware.

For the first task, I'm going to nag you. If you don't do it already—and you know you should—back up your data. You should have daily copies of your critical files on multiple volumes of removable media. If you don't have a tape drive with enough room to perform a full backup, use a strategic backup system.

Here's mine: I create a folder in the root directory simply called backup. In it, I create subfolders for different things—books I'm writing, articles, photographs, financial data, and everything else I cannot live without. I use a program called BackupMyPC, from Stomp software, to write that data to a different DVD+RW every night. I have DVDs for each day of the week. I keep them in a fire safe when not in use.

Alternatively, you can use PCMag.com's InstaBack utility. It automatically backs up strategic folders and files on your PC.
Even if your PC flaunts a muscular RAID system, you still need to back up the data. A RAID array is great to protect your stuff against a hard drive failure, but if you accidentally delete an important document, or if something goes corrupt through a software glitch rather than a hardware failure, RAID won't help you.

Another daily task is to update your antivirus program's virus definitions if it doesn't do so itself. For instance, Norton Antivirus can update itself, but AntiVir, free from www.free-av.com, does not. A few free AV programs do have an auto-update feature: Alwil's Avast (www.avast.com), Grisoft's AVG (www.grisoft.com), and the open-source ClamAV (the Windows version is at ClamWin.com and other versions are at ClamAV.net).

If your motherboard came with one, use the heat-monitoring program to keep an eye on the health of your system's CPU and the ambient case temperature. You can also get an aftermarket heat monitor that comes with its own probes and LED readout—many have consoles that mount right into a 5 1/4-inch drive bay. Look for such a device at PC enthusiast stores such as FrozenCPU.com. The maximum temperature you should allow for your CPU varies: You'll have to do a bit of research to find it. I always try to keep my CPU cooler than 70 degrees Celsius and the case temperature below 50 degrees.

If your PC is running Windows XP, use Automatic Updates. That'll keep Windows up to date with all of the critical security fixes that rain down upon Windows users. If you don't like the idea of your computer talking to Microsoft by itself, run Windows Update daily to check for vulnerability patches.

Weekly and Monthly Software Upkeep

Whether or not you use Automatic Updates, you should visit Windows Update on a regular basis. Various modules that you may or may not use receive updates that aren't marked critical, such as Windows Media Player and Windows Movie Maker. Run Windows Update about once a week to check for noncritical updates.

You should also scan for spyware weekly. Use Spy-bot or something similar, or download Microsoft's free AntiSpyware, which is currently in beta. It can install a background program to watch for spyware at all times and schedule full system scans.

Each month, you should take a few minutes to clean up your hard drive. Windows includes Disk Cleanup, but I find it to be a bit superficial and prefer to do a more thorough inspection. First, uninstall anything you don't use, through Control Panel's Add/Remove Programs applet.
Remove any Windows components that you don't have use for. Then, go through the various folders, especially Program Files, and look for subfolders for programs that you've uninstalled. Toss out downloaded program files for stuff you've already installed or that you simply do not need.

Next, clean up the registry. I use a program called Registry Mechanic from WinGuides. It safely searches the registry for orphan entries, invalid keys and other things that bloat that monster database.

When you've done all that, then run Disk Cleanup. It's in the Start menu under All Programs/Accessories/System Tools. Get rid of anything you don't need. Continued... Next, update all of your computer's device drivers. Head to the various manufacturers' web sites, or, if you didn't build it yourself, the computer manufacturer's web site, and check for new drivers for:
· The motherboard
· The graphics card
· The audio device
· LAN equipment
· RAID controllers
· Any other devices in your PC

While you're visiting those sites, download any updates to the firmware in your system—the hard drive, optical drives, graphics card, and other devices. When you're ready to flash the motherboard BIOS, jot down any settings you might have altered, as most flash routines reset the BIOS to its default settings.

Update all of your programs. Lots of software comes with its own update routines: Look in the Help or Tools menus to let it update itself. For Microsoft Office, go to Windows Update and upgrade to Microsoft Update, which updates nearly all Microsoft software. For games and programs without auto-update applets, head to the publishers' web sites and visit the Download or Support sections.

Finally, defrag your hard drive. Windows's own Disk Defragmenter does an acceptable job, except it doesn't defrag the paging file. When the paging file fragments, it can cause major slowdowns during swapping. It's more likely to fragment on full drives than drives with airy pockets of free space. Some third-party defrag programs boast the ability to defrag the paging file, but you can do it for free:

1. Right-click My Computer.
2. Click Properties.
3. Click on the Advanced tab.
4. Under the Performance heading, click Settings. This will open a new window.
5. Click the Advanced tab.
6. Under the Virtual Memory heading, click Change. Another new window will appear.
7. Jot down the Virtual Memory settings. Then, click on the No paging file radio button.
8. Click OK until you get back to the desktop.
9. Reboot.
10. Run Disk Defragmenter and defrag the drive that contained the paging file.
11. Reboot.
12. Open the Virtual Memory dialog as you did before and recreate the settings you jotted down. Click Set.
13. Click OK back to the desktop.
14. Reboot one last time.


Legions of programs think that they, or at least parts of their code, need to run in the background all the time. Microsoft Office, Quicken, QuickTime, and many other popular applications are guilty of this. You can get rid of anything you don't want in the background with the System Configuration Utility.

Click Run, and type in msconfig, and then hit Enter. Click the Startup tab, and you'll be presented with a list, each entry preceded by a check box.
Peck through the list carefully, unchecking things that you're certain you don't need. Make sure you don't disable your antivirus program, your PIM, and anything else that you actually want running in the background. If you're unsure about a particular entry, use trial and error: Disable it, reboot, and see if all of your programs work. If something is amiss, go back into the System Configuration Utility and reenable the affected program's startup file.

Alternatively, PCMag.com's Startup Cop Pro 2 saves you from doing all this manually. It automates the process of cleaning out stuff that loads when you boot to speed up performance. Continued... I'm a Windows user. I'm used to the operating system growing slower and less responsive with age, no matter how many times I clean the registry and defrag the hard drive. About once a year, I backup virtually everything—my data files, my email, my game saves, my downloaded music files (all of which are purchased legally, of course), and anything else I can't possibly go through life without.

Then, I boot the Windows XP CD-ROM, reformat the hard drive, and install a fresh, clean, sparkling new installation of Windows. The improvement in performance is usually breathtaking. You can easily forget just how swiftly and efficiently Windows can operate.
With regular maintenance, your PC can cruise along for years almost like it's brand new. Keep it clean, keep the software up to date, keep it streamlined, and you'll be in good shape. Now if someone would only invent a self-cleaning computer...
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Copyright (c) 2006 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved.


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