Article by Kevin Savetz

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Copyright © by Kevin Savetz


When you got your first car, someone, such as your uncle (the car guy), probably told you that you would only get out of it what you put into it. By changing the oil, rotating the tires, and performing other routine maintenance tasks, the car would last as long as you needed it.

The same rule is true about your PC. If you treat it well, it will treat you well in return. On the other hand, if you run your PC without giving thought to its maintenance, it will give you more hassles than a junkyard clunker.

For the next few minutes, we'll be your uncle, the computer guy. We'll show you how to keep your PC gassed up and running reliably.

Start Up & Shut Down

Every time you turn your PC on or off, it runs through a battery of procedures to safeguard the information you've stored on it. It is important to let it do its thing, even when you're in a hurry.

Sometimes as Windows boots, it will automatically start ScanDisk, a utility that checks the hard disk for problems. (Linux and Mac OS X have a similar program called fsck.) Depending on the size of your hard drive, this process can take several minutes. You can skip the scanning process, but you shouldn't. This is the time that the operating system uses to search for and fix problems that may have crept into the programs and information you've stored. If you force Windows to skip this procedure to boot more quickly, you could lose important data.

It is even more important to properly shut down the computer. Your PC may have a button or switch that turns it off by cutting off the power. It's instant gratification, but it doesn't give Windows the chance to do many important housekeeping tasks before shutting down. When you shut down properly by choosing Turn Off Computer from the Start menu, Windows is able to tidy up the data it is working with, making sure files are properly saved. When housekeeping is done, a message will tell you that it's safe to turn off the PC (or more likely, the computer will turn itself off).

File Maintenance

By keeping the files on your hard drive organized, you make your information easier to locate and keep plenty of free space available for future projects. Periodically run Add Or Remove Programs to check for, and remove, applications that you no longer use, such as an old game that is no longer entertaining or a shareware program that you decided not to use. To access Add Or Remove Programs in Windows XP, click Start and Control Panel. In the Control Panel window, double-click Add Or Remove Programs.

WinXP's Disk Cleanup application can save drive space by removing files that are no longer needed, such as temporary Internet files and log files that were left behind when you installed applications. To access the program, select Start, All Programs, Accessories, System Tools, and Disk Cleanup.

Some computer experts suggest defragmenting your hard drive periodically. A defrag utility reorganizes the data on your hard drive so related files are stored in contiguous blocks rather than scattered in pieces around the drive. The idea is that by physically placing related data together on the drive, access to that data will be faster. Experts disagree on the effectiveness of defragging. You might give it a try if your hard drive seems especially slow, or if you've completed the other maintenance chores on this checklist and have a hankering to do more. Windows includes Disk Defragmenter, a defrag utility. In WinXP, click Start, All Programs, Accessories, Disk Tools, and Disk Defragmenter. Third-party utilities such as Diskeeper ($29.95 download, $34.95 CD; www.execsoft.com) add extra features.

Keep Bad Stuff Away

Keeping viruses, spyware, and other havoc-wreaking software off your PC is a crucial task. The three core tools for doing so are an Internet firewall, antivirus software, and an anti-spyware utility.

A firewall is software or hardware that isolates your PC from connections by unauthorized computers on the Internet, while still allowing you to access the Internet. If you have a cable modem or DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) connection, a firewall is a must. It's a good idea even if you use a dial-up connection. Once you have installed and activated the firewall, you're done-it protects your PC from crackers and file snoops whenever you are online.

WinXP has a built-in firewall. To activate it, click Start, Control Panel, and double-click Network Connections. Highlight the icon that represents your LAN (local-area network) or high-speed Internet connection and select Change Settings Of This Connection on the left side. In the connection's Properties window, go to the Advanced tab and select the Protect My Computer And Network By Limiting Or Preventing Access To This Computer From The Internet checkbox. There's no built-in firewall in Windows 98, but you can add one. Download and install ZoneAlarm (free; www.zonelabs.com), a basic firewall that works with Windows 98/Me/XP. The free version works over a modem or broadband connection. The $49.95 Pro version adds email attachment scanning, ad blocking, and file security functions.

The next piece of the puzzle is spyware and adware remover. Spyware is software that surreptitiously sends information about you and your computer use to someone else over the Internet. It might snitch about which Web sites you visit or even capture every keystroke you type, including credit card numbers. Adware places advertisements on the screen-ads which are often difficult to remove. Ad-aware (www.lavasoftusa.com/software/adaware) and Spybot Search & Destroy (www.safer-networking.org/en/spybotsd) are two free programs for removing these infections from your PC. Use one monthly or more often if you frequently download software from the Internet.

The third part of the keep-bad-stuff-at-bay trilogy is antivirus software. Every Windows system needs it, even if you're smart and systematic about not opening email attachments and performing other safeguards. You don't have to spend big bucks to protect your PC from viruses. AntiVir Personal Edition (www.free-av.com) and AVG Anti-Virus Free Edition (free.grisoft.com) are both free for personal use. McAfee (www.mcafee.com), Symantec (www.symantec.com), and Trend Micro (www.trendmicro.com) offer antivirus software for businesses, nonprofits, and home users who want more robust antivirus features than the free programs deliver.

Some antivirus programs are, once installed, always active: They will automatically search your system for new threats on a regular basis. Other programs require that you run them periodically to defend your system. In this case, make it a habit to run the software once a week or more often.

You can use separate firewall, spyware-blocker, and antivirus utilities, or opt for a single tool, such as Norton Internet Security ($69.95; www.symantec.com), that does all three.

Backup

Your PC's hard drive is the heart of the beast and is the component that is perhaps most vulnerable to unexpected problems.

The most important thing you can do for your hard drive-indeed, for the computer as a whole-is to perform regular backups. A host of regrettable events such as a computer virus, hard drive crash, theft of the computer, or a fire can destroy all of the data on your hard drive. Making backups and storing them apart from the computer is your best defense against losing that data forever.

There are many ways to perform backups. You just need to find a system that saves the information you need and is easy enough that you'll get in the habit of doing it regularly. Most users don't have to back up every single file on the hard drive, which can be a time-consuming chore. (If need be, you can always reinstall Windows and your applications from their original media.) You do need to back up the personal data that you've created, such as tax records, email archives, digital pictures, and so on.

Many users find that burning files to CD or DVD is the most efficient way to back up their data. If your PC is equipped with a CD or DVD burner, just burn your vital files to disc, and then store those discs somewhere safe. Be sure to use name-brand media: Some low-quality discs lose data integrity quite quickly.

Where should you put those backup discs? The best choice is a secure, offsite location such as a safety deposit box. For smaller amounts of data, a floppy disk or USB (Universal Serial Bus) pen drive can be enough to archive vital files. Another option is to use an online backup service such as Ibackup (www.ibackup.com) or LiveVault (www.livevault.com). These services encrypt your files and upload them to Internet servers. This way, you don't have to worry about storing or locating backup media.

Keep The PC Clean

A clean PC cuts down on downtime, repair bills, and minimizes health risks. Keeping your computer clean is a simple process: Put a splash of warm, soapy water on a rag to remove dust and grime from the case, printer, mouse, and other external components. Dust the surfaces around the computer, too. This will mean the fans will suck less dust into the computer.

If you are comfortable opening your PC's case, you may want to do so every year or so (or whenever you have it open for upgrades) to clean inside it. You're likely to find accumulations of dust the size of small mammals around the internal fans, on the motherboard, and add-on cards. You can use small vacuum cleaner attachments and a small paintbrush to remove them. A can of compressed air can blow out the detritus.

To clean the monitor without leaving streaks, pour Windex or a solution of white vinegar and water on a lint-free cloth (such as one for cleaning eyeglasses) and wipe it on the screen. Never pour or spray liquid directly onto any PC component. Wet the rag instead.

Computer keyboards are among the most germ-infested workplace surfaces. A good, low-tech keyboard-cleaning technique is to turn it over and shake it. You may be disgusted by the quantity of skin flecks, food particles, and other muck that has collected in it. You can use compressed air to blow out any gunk that remains. Then, use a disinfecting wipe or bleach solution on the keyboard, mouse, and desktop to kill the bacteria and viruses that they harbor.

Move & Position The PC

As they work, the processor, video card, and other components get quite hot. The movement of cool air is the only thing that keeps those sweltering components from overheating. Just as a radiator needs plenty of water to keep the engine running cool, your PC needs good airflow to keep it cool.

Fans inside the PC keep air moving, but that hot air needs to be able to escape. Take a moment to look for the fan grates on your PC (one will be at the back on the power supply, and there are likely to be others). Don't block those fan intakes, don't shove the case against a surface that blocks air flow, and don't place the computer case in a closed cabinet where the same (increasingly hot) air will be drawn back into the PC. Just let the PC have a few inches of space around it and it will be fine.

From time to time you may want to move your PC, perhaps repositioning it to the other side of the desk or just moving it a few inches to reach a cable. No matter how far the journey, it is not wise to move the computer while it's on. Why? The hard drive's read/write head skims just a fraction of an inch above the magnetic media. One good jostle could cause the head to smash into the fragile media, gouging it and destroying your data. To prevent this problem, simply shut the computer down before moving it. One of the many housekeeping tasks the PC performs when you shut it off is to "park" the hard drive head so it won't harm the media if jolted.

Ergonomics

As long as you're thinking about preventive maintenance for the computer, it's a good time to consider preventive medicine for you. Ergonomic placement of computer components can mean the difference between a comfortable workspace and one that causes an aching neck, hands, and back after a few minutes at the computer.

You should be able to sit at the desk with your feet touching the floor (or, at least, a stack of phone books). You should be able to see the monitor easily without bending your neck upwards: the top of the monitor should be at your eye level. You should be able to reach the mouse without extending your arm too far forward-the upper arm should gently rest at your side, with an approximately 90 degree bend in the elbow. The keyboard should be low and close (almost in your lap) to reduce repetitive arm movement and wrist strain.

Power Player

Your computer is useless without electricity. Electricity, however, can be a fickle tool, and PCs aren't terribly forgiving about power problems. Your home's electricity is generally 120 volts, but the normal acceptable range can be anywhere from 103V to 132V. A dip to less than 103V is known as a brownout, which accounts for 87% of power problems. Anything higher than 132V is called a spike. A dip to zero volts is a blackout. It might seem like your electricity is reliable. In fact, chances are that your home or office endures many short brownouts and spikes every day.

Your computer should absolutely not be plugged directly into the wall socket. At minimum, it should be plugged into a surge protector, a device that removes spikes before they can reach the PC. Choose a quality surge protector, not just a cheap power strip, which can look just like a surge protector. Every computer component, including the printer, external drives, hubs, and cable modem, should be plugged into a surge protector, so you may need more than one.

Some surge protectors include jacks to protect your phone line or cable modem connection from spikes, too. Although relatively rare, a nearby lightning strike can send a surge of power through your phone line to the modem, or through the cable TV line to the cable modem, either of which can damage the computer.

A better solution, although more expensive, is to use a UPS (uninterruptible power supply) instead of a surge protector for the PC and monitor. In addition to filtering spikes, a UPS protects against brownouts and blackouts because its battery provides power to the PC during brownouts and blackouts. Depending on the UPS' power output and your computer's power requirements, it can provide enough time to safely shut down the computer in a blackout, or even let you keep on working for a while during an extended power outage.

Don't plug the PC into an outlet that's on the same electrical circuit as high-demand equipment such as an air conditioner or refrigerator. The sudden power draw that occurs when the appliance turns on can cause small brownouts for other gadgets on that circuit, such as your computer.

If you happen to be home during an electrical storm, the best way to protect your equipment against a lightning strike is to unplug your computer components from the electrical outlet.

Your PC Tune-Up

All of these preventive maintenance tasks might sound a bit overwhelming, but it's not an unworkable chore. Just like a car, your PC is a complex machine that will run reliably for years if you perform basic maintenance. A few minutes a week, perhaps doing file maintenance one week and cleaning it the next, plus performing regular backups, is all it takes to keep your PC humming along.

PC Maintenance Checklist

Routine maintenance keeps your PC in tip-top shape. Use the following chart as a guideline for scheduling those maintenance tasks.

Task Suggested Frequency Importance (Out of 5)
Backup vital files Daily or weekly *****
Check for spyware/adware Monthly ***
Check for viruses Weekly ****
Clean inside PC At least annually ***
Clean PC, keyboard, and monitor Monthly ***
Defrag disk Quarterly, if needed *
Ergonomic positioning Constant vigilance *****
Install Internet firewall Once *****
Install surge protector or UPS Once *****
Run Disk Cleanup Monthly **
Uninstall unused applications Quarterly or as needed **

Reprinted with permission from Computer Power User magazine.


Articles by Kevin Savetz