Time to clean up your act

Nobody will argue that keeping your PC clutter free is a good idea, but how many of us actually bother on a regular basis? Windows takes you through the basics.

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By  Andrew Picken Published  December 1, 2003

Introduction|~||~||~|January is usually the time of year for reflection and resolutions, but when you are making those vows to get yourself fit or quit smoking, spare a thought for your humble PC. Often overlooked or neglected, your PC also needs to be kept in proper shape if it is to perform like you want and need it to.

In the same way that servicing your car on a regular basis will reap its rewards in the long term, a regular 'check up' of your PC's health will provide a healthy return over time. Excuse the pun, but leaving your PC to its own devices may be the easy option while investing in regular maintenance of your PC is crucial in terms of both performance and its ability to fend off viruses and bugs.

'Moores Law' dictates that computing power roughly doubles every eighteen months, so as soon as you get your shiny new PC out of the shop, it is effectively out of date. Before you clamour to upgrade, however, be aware there are a number of steps that you can take to gain maximum longevity from your current PC. It's worth remembering that you can spend as much or as little as you like in order to get your PC into shape. There are literally thousands of utilities available that will clean up your PC for you, but some of the more effective packages are free and already at your fingertips.

To push your PCs performance, one crucial step to take is to defragment your hard drive. This is necessary because your hard disk stores data in the form of small groups called clusters. These clusters are discontinuous, i.e. a single file is actually split up and stored in different clusters spread across the hard disk, in a process known as fragmentation. On a fragmented hard disk, the computer has to work a lot harder in order to locate and gather all these small clusters of data whenever a file is requested. This is a less efficient way of accessing files or applications on your hard disk and slows down your PC dramatically.

As your PC goes about its business on a daily basis it inevitably gathers some unnecessary baggage. It is important to get on top of this clutter before it gets a stranglehold on your PC's precious resources. Top end packages, like Norton Systemsworks (around $57), will take care of the clean up work for you with lots of clever tools to keep your system running efficiently. These packages kick into life when you boot up or work away in the background while you get on with your work. It is worth noting, however, that the Cleandisk option available on your PC will also suffice for cleaning out your junk.

Installing anti-virus software seems like an obvious move to make but it is a step that is often overlooked with the classic 'it will never happen to me' attitude. Again, your options are wide open when it comes to protecting your PC. You can invest in comprehensive packages like McAfee Virus Scan, which weighs in at around $23, or use some of the more simplistic, and free, software like the firewall package, Zone Alarm (which is on this issue's Windows CD).

The most important point to bear in mind, whatever package you choose, is to keep your software up to date. Sign up to a company's e-mail list so they can warn you of the latest viruses and heed the prompts to update your software regularly. Also stay abreast of the latest virus alerts through web sites, such as www3.ca.com/virusinfo. Even if you only take on board half of the following tips, tricks and hints, your PC will feel the benefits instantly, and more importantly, so will you.
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Step 1
It is fair to say that a geek's work is never done. Although the rest of your room may resemble a rubbish tip, it is important to keep your computer's connections and cables well maintained. A look behind your average PC will usually reveal a sea of cabling that is far from neatly organised and safely stored. If you are guilty of possessing a plethora of plugs or a wad of wires then it might be worth investing a bit of time to uncoil these wires and stop overloading your power points. For example, you can use a plastic cable tie to secure loose cabling and why not purchase a circuit breaker or surge breaker to protect you and your PC. In the dusty and humid climate of the Middle East, keeping the connections clean is also an important consideration if you want to keep your system running smoothly. Use a feather duster for general dusting but you might find a cotton bud is easier to use on the trickier places to reach. The majority of monitors gather dust quicker than the latest copy of our rival magazines, so make sure you regularly use a special cleaning cloth.

Step 2
There are numerous free utilities that allow you to check a hard disk for any logical or physical errors, check out the utilities section of last issue's free Windows CD. However, one of the simplest methods is to use the Scandisk software that is built into your PC. ScanDisk, unsurprisingly, scans your hard disk for errors and reports any abnormal conditions that it discovers. This could be anything from lost clusters or allocation errors to physical damage on the data storage area. Crucially, you are presented with options to correct these errors. Before you unleash Scandisk ensure that all applications are closed and then click on Start / Programs / Accessories / System Tools and then ScanDisk. You are presented with two choices: the standard test scans the drive for errors in files and folders, while the thorough test also checks your hard disk for physical damage. If ScanDisk encounters a physical error in the data storage area then it relocates the data stored on that area and marks off that area as damaged to prevent other information being stored there. ScanDisk also checks your files and folders for invalid filenames.
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Step 3
Defragmentation sounds nasty but it is in actual fact a cracking way to free up extra space on your machine and improve its overall efficiency. To start the Disk Defragmenter utility, first make sure that all your applications are closed and screensavers disabled. Then click Start / Programs / Accessories / System Tools and then Disk Defragmenter. When it all kicks off, you are presented with a sea of colourful blocks and what is happening here is the Disk Defragmenter is reorganising the file fragments on your hard disk into adjacent clusters. This improves the performance of your PC because the files are now arranged in a sequential order and are therefore easier to access. Cleverly, the Disk Defragmenter is also able to arrange frequently used files or programs at a common location on your hard disk, reducing access times even further. To make your applications run quicker, ensure that the Rearrange Program Files checkbox in the settings menu is selected. Select the 'check the drive for errors' checkbox in order to pre-scan the hard disk for errors.

Step 4
If you want to avoid having to repeat the previous step too often, then cleaning up your hard drive on a regular basis is an imperative. One easy-to-use utility already installed on your PC is Disk Cleanup, this lets you remove all these unwanted files from your system at the click of a button. The files that it cleans up include: anything in the Recycle Bin, all temporary files, offline Web pages, downloaded program files, and Windows applications that are not in use. To get Disk Cleanup started, select Start / Programs / Accessories / System Tools and then click on Disk Cleanup. Select the drive you want to scan for obsolete files and click OK. Click the Disk Cleanup tab and select the check boxes specifying the type of files that you want to remove from your drive. Click OK and then click Yes to start the cleanup process. To remove specific Windows components or applications, select the More Options tab and click on Cleanup in the Windows Components or Installed Programs section. Don't forget, In the Add/Remove Program Properties dialog box that appears, select the components or applications that you want to uninstall.
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Step 5
Without wanting to sound like your nagging mother, protection against viruses is crucial for any PC connected to the internet. The most common threats are spread by email and file sharing and require human action to trigger replication and spreading, such as opening an infected e-mail attachment. Other threats include worms that exploit system vulnerabilities and are more dangerous because they don't need user intervention. The other way that an antivirus program can help protect you is through some educated guesswork, also known as heuristic detection. Viruses follow patterns and antivirus programs can intercept files (which may or may not actually be viruses) that fall into these patterns, and quarantine them. Then you can decide if it is a harmless file or a virus and act accordingly. For example some viruses take the form of visual basic files, with an extension .vbs. A good antivirus program will be highly suspicious of a .vbs file that you receive as an e-mail attachment and it will, at the very least, warn you to check its authenticity before opening it.

Step 6
Depending on what you use your PC for, one of the first things to go wrong on the average PC are the optical drives. Early symptoms will be the CD/DVD reading slowly or the CD/DVD player reporting no disk found or it will just start skipping. But fear not, there is a few ways to get your drives back into shape. The first thing you can do is buy a lens cleaner CD, which is similar to a regular CD except it has a short and narrow brush with very fine bristles that stand less than 1/8 of an inch high and around a 1/4 inch long on the disk play side surface. This method simply brushes dust from the laser and should improve the lasers ability to read your disc. Another, slightly more risky, method is to actually remove the optical drive and give a spring clean. Remove your tower cover in the normal way, observing all safety precautions, and then locate your troublesome optical drive. Detach the unit and then also remove the drives metal cover. Locate the lens and then being as gentle as humanly possible, clean the lasers lens with a cotton bud.
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