Computer Maintenance

Keep your computer happy, and it'll likely do the same for you.

It sounds pretty sensible, doesn't it? But how often do we actually give our computers the kind of care we devote to, say, our cars? Considering how important computers have become in our daily lives, neglecting them is just asking for trouble.

One of the keys to keeping your computer running smoothly is a well-maintained hard disk, which is what we'll be focusing on in this tutorial. We'll take a two-phase approach, starting with a disk cleanup routine and ending with a tune-up to optimize performance.

The steps here are basic enough for any novice to follow, but they're important for computer users of all experience levels.

Phase 1: Cleanup
The first phase of maintaining your PC is getting rid of a lot of the extraneous junk that hogs up hard disk space. This cleanup routine not only maximizes the amount of disk space you have for storage, but it also makes later tasks go a little more quickly.

Remove Old Files
Suggested frequency: Twice a year

Do you really need all those old business documents or school assignments from years ago? Do you still watch those movie trailers you downloaded or listen to that collection of MP3s?

In these days of multi-gigabyte hard disks, this kind of housecleaning isn't as critical as it used to be. But even if you have a huge drive, old files can build up over time and take up room that you could be using for files you do need. Removing the clutter can also make your maintenance tasks go more quickly.

Fight any pack-rat impulses and be ruthless in deciding what stays and what goes. If you don't want to delete these files permanently, move them off your hard disk and on to CDs, Zip disks, or other removable media.

Finally, our suggestion that you do it twice a year assumes a moderate level of computing activity. If you go wild downloading shareware and MP3s daily, for example, you might want to make it a monthly or bimonthly ritual.

Uninstall Unneeded Programs
Suggested frequency: Every other month

Look at all the programs you've installed. Chances are you'll find a few you don't use anymore. They might include games you finished playing long ago or shareware programs you tried once and never looked at again. Here's how to get rid of them:

Windows 98/Me/2000:
  1. Click the Start button, choose Settings, and select Control Panel.
  2. Double-click the Add/Remove Programs icon.
  3. Select the program you want to remove and click the Add/Remove button (Windows 98/Me) or the Remove button (Windows 2000).
Windows XP:
  1. Click the Start button and choose Control Panel.
  2. Click Add or Remove Programs.
  3. Click the program you want to uninstall and click the Remove (or Change/Remove) button that appears beside it.
Windows users should also check out the Belarc Advisor download.

Mac OS:
  1. If the software came with an installer program (and if you still have that program), double-click the installer.
  2. Look for an Easy Install or Custom Install menu and click it. If you see a Remove option in that menu, select it.
  3. Click the Remove button.
A note for Mac users: These instructions work for software that uses the popular Installer VISE; if the software you're deleting uses a different installer, just run the installer and look for a "remove" or "uninstall" option. Also, a lot of Mac OS software doesn't come with an installer (or, if it does, the installer doesn't offer a "remove" option). In that case, you can usually just drag the program folder or icon to your Trash.

Take Out the Trash
Suggested frequency: Once a month

When you delete files, they're not really gone. In Windows, those files end up in your Recycle Bin; in the Mac OS, they collect in your Trash. Either way, they keep hogging disk space until you flush them away for good.

  1. Right-click the Recycle Bin icon on your desktop.
  2. Select Empty Recycle Bin from the menu that appears.
An even better method is to use Windows' more thorough Disk Cleanup utility. It not only empties your Recycle Bin but also deletes temporary files left over from software installations, Internet Explorer browsing sessions, and more:
  1. Click Start and select Programs (or All Programs in Windows XP).
  2. Choose Accessories, System Tools, and Disk Cleanup.
  3. Follow the utility's instructions to clear unneeded files from your hard disk.
Mac OS:
  1. While holding down your Control key, click the Trash icon (in OS X, simply click and hold your mouse button on the Trash icon in the Dock).
  2. Select Empty Trash from the menu that appears.
Delete Temporary Internet Files
Suggested frequency: Once a month

Temporary Internet files are the Web pages, images, and other files that your Web browser stores on your computer's hard disk to make Web browsing faster. For details about how to get rid of them, see this tutorial. Note: If you browse the Web with Internet Explorer for Windows and you used the Disk Cleanup utility described in the previous tip, you can skip this part.

Phase 2: Tune-Up
Once you've conquered the clutter, you're ready to make your hard disk healthy and optimize it for maximum performance. Here are three things you can do to finish up your maintenance routine.

Scan for Viruses
Suggested frequency: Once a month

You do have antivirus software, don't you? If you don't, you're gambling with your important data, especially if you're running Windows (most viruses target Windows users). If you need antivirus software, go to CNET There, you can browse the Utilities section or enter the keyword virus in the search field to see a list of software you can download.

Most virus software includes a background scanner that alerts you the instant it detects a suspicious file. Still, it doesn't hurt to run a manual scan on your entire hard disk just to be safe. The instructions for doing so will differ depending on what software you use, so read the manual or online help that came with your software.

Before you run the scan, make sure you have the latest virus definitions—the files that tell your virus scanner about recently discovered bugs circulating on the Net. Again, the steps for doing so depend on what software you use. Updating your definitions usually involves choosing your software's built-in update option, which automatically downloads and installs the latest definitions. But in some cases you may need to visit the publisher's Web site and download them yourself.

Check for Errors
Suggested Frequency: Once a month

Any computer manual will tell you to always shut down your computer properly. Too bad our computers don't always let us do that. When our system freezes, they often force us to use any means necessary to restart them.

But simply restarting your computer may not clear up the problem. After even one crash, your hard disk can develop errors in the way it stores data. What's more, if you don't fix those errors, you might be headed for more crashes.

Windows and the Mac OS include utilities you can use to find and repair these types of errors. If you use Windows 98 or later or Mac OS 8.5 or later, you may have seen this utility run automatically when you've restarted your system after a crash. Still, it's a good idea to run it manually as part of your regular maintenance routine.

Windows 98/Me:
  1. Click the Start button and select Programs.
  2. Choose Accessories, System Tools, and ScanDisk.
  3. Make sure your hard disk is selected in the list.
  4. Under Type of test, select Standard for a quick check of your disk or Thorough for a more complete (but more time-consuming) scan. Microsoft explains these options in great detail if you're interested.
  5. Check the box labeled Automatically fix errors.
  6. Click Start.
If ScanDisk tells you that it has restarted because other programs are writing to the disk, you may have to quit some running programs or restart your computer in a mode that's more suitable for troubleshooting. Learn how to deal with ScanDisk interruptions.

Windows 2000/XP:
  1. Click the Start button and choose My Computer (or double-click the My Computer icon on your desktop).
  2. Right-click the icon for your hard disk and select Properties from the menu that appears.
  3. Click the Tools tab.
  4. Under Error-checking, click Check Now.
  5. Check the box labeled Automatically fix file system errors.
  6. Click Start.
Windows 2000/XP may tell you it can't check the disk while it's in use and offer to schedule a check during your next reboot. If you see this message, click Yes and reboot your computer.

Mac OS 8.x and 9.x:
  1. Insert your Mac OS System CD into your CD drive.
  2. Hold down the C key as you restart your computer (this starts your computer from the CD).
  3. Once your desktop appears, double-click the CD icon on your desktop.
  4. Double-click the Utilities folder.
  5. Double-click Disk First Aid.
  6. Select your hard disk in the list near the top of the window.
  7. Click Verify.
  8. If Disk First Aid shows any error messages after it finishes checking your disk, click Repair.
  9. Restart your computer.
When you run a repair, Disk First Aid might tell you it has found errors but can't repair them. In that case, try Apple's troubleshooting steps.

Mac OS X:
  1. Insert the Mac OS X installation disc into your CD drive
  2. Hold down the C key as you restart your computer (this starts your computer from the CD).
  3. Once your desktop appears, the Mac OS X installer program will begin. Don't click Continue. Instead, click the Installer menu at the top of your screen and choose Open Disk Utility.
  4. Click the First Aid tab.
  5. Select your disk from the list on the left.
  6. Click Verify.
  7. If Disk Utility shows any error messages after it finishes checking your disk, click Repair.
  8. Restart your computer.

Defragment Your Hard Drive
Suggested frequency: Every two months

Fragmentation happens when your computer stores individual files in "fragments" spread out across your hard disk. It's not bad for your data, but if it gets out of hand, it can make your PC noticeably poky. Defragmenting your disk rearranges the data to make files and program open a little more quickly. For details about how to defragment your hard disk, see our Defragment page.

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