Many of us take our computers for granted, we turn it on, and expect it to be ready to do our bidding. Although there is no way to guarantee that your machine will never fail, there are a few things you can do on a regular schedule to help assure that your computer will be ready when you need it. This post discusses the things you can do to keep your machine safe, secure, and in top operating condition.
Before I begin, all of the utilities referenced below are included in Windows or are available for download, free of charge, on our Free Downloads page: PC Personal Support Free Downloads
The single most important thing you can do is backup your personal data. If you do not own an external backup device, buy one! Most of the commercial external backup hard drives sold today come with some sort of software to help you backup your personal data. Personal data can be defined as anything you have created or is created and stored by the programs you use regularly. Examples include email, spreadsheets, text documents, business data, accounting information, and even something as simple as web shortcuts. While this is not a comprehensive list, it will give you an idea of what you can lose if your hard drive fails or your machine falls victim to destructive malware.
If you do not have an external hard drive, one brand I have experience with and personally own comes from a company call Clickfree. Their intelligent hard drives come with built-in software that will back up each of your computers simply by plugging in the device to the computer. Be sure to check their site for “Hot Deals” and refurbished units.
The name Clickfree comes from the fact that if you do nothing but plug the drive into your USB port, it will automatically run the built-in software and backup all your personal data. These drives are widely available from major retailers like BestBuy or BrandSmart, and on the web directly from the manufacturer, or from Amazon.com. If you already on an external hard drive, Clickfree also sells the software in a plug-in device that connects between your hard drive and your computer and provides the same automatic backup. The device is called the Clickfree Transformer and sells for about $40.
How often you backup depends on the value of your personal information and how often it changes. I strongly recommend that you backup at least once a week. If your computer contains business data that you can’t live without and changes daily, you should consider backing up every evening.
Disk cleanup is the process of removing unnecessary temporary files from your computer. These files take up disk space, but offer little or no benefit. Examples of these files are temporary internet files created by your browser, temporary files created by Windows, or files created by applications such as Microsoft Office products. Whenever you defrag your hard drive or scan for malware/viruses, these files have to be defragged/scanned and take additional time for those programs to complete.
There are many utilities available to perform the cleanup task. Windows provides a utility called the Disk Cleanup utility in the Windows Accessories folder. There are also some excellent free utilities that go beyond the Windows application and also address unused entries in the Windows Registry, unnecessary Startup programs, browser history and cookies.
The simplest program, Glary Utilities has a one-click interface that addresses the most important temporary information without the user having to know the technical aspects of disk cleanup. I recommend this program for most users.
A program requiring a bit more technical savvy, but offering more options is CCleaner. This program is very powerful, but unless you are confident that you know what data is expendable, I only recommend it to technically strong users.
Disk cleanup should be performed weekly, and always before defragging or scanning for malware unless you believe there is active malware on your system. In that case, scan first to prevent any delay in removing malware from your system.
Defragmenting is the process of reconnecting pieces of files (fragments) that have become physically separated by Windows during normal read-write operations. Although files are fragmented, Windows knows how to find all the fragments and reconnected them when a file is accessed. The problem with fragmented files, is that it takes more disk read/write operations (e.g. time) to access the fragmented files. Once a file is defragmented or reassembled into one contiguous file, it can be accessed in a minimum of disk operations. This speeds up the operation of your machine significantly.
Windows provides the Disk Defragmenter in the Accessories Folder, but there are a couple of free products that can perform the same task faster, and in many cases, more efficiently. Smart Defrag from IoBit and Auslogics Disk Defrag both do an excellent job of very fast defragmentation and provide the ability to defrag in the background when the computer is idle.
Defragmentation should be performed weekly to keep your machine running quickly and efficiently. Smart Defrag provides a Deep Defragmentation option that should be run monthly. This option attempts to move the files to the “top” of the disk and free up more contiguous empty space to slow down Window’s tendency to fragment files.
Do not confuse malware scanning with the scan that your anti-virus program performs. Less than one percent of the “bad” software on the internet is truly considered viral. The vast majority is classified as malware, a catch-all term to describe spyware, adware, trojans, and yes, viruses. Malware exists to attempt to sell a product, steal personal information, damage data, or just to annoy the user. Most virus scanners are geared to find viruses, and may not find all of the different types of malware.
There are many excellent malware scanners available, but my two favorites are Malwarebytes and SuperAntiSpyware. Both of these programs are available for free, and should be installed and updated right after you finish reading this post. Many malware infections prevent the download or installation of anti-malware programs once your machine is infected. If you already have the anti-malware programs installed and updated, there is a good chance that you can run them and clean the machine before the infection requires a professional’s attention.
You should perform a quick scan weekly, and a full scan monthly, if you are not having any symptoms of a problem. If there is anything suspicious happening on your machine, close all programs immediately and run a full scan with one or both of these scanners. If you have working internet connectivity, be sure to always update the scan definitions with the “Check for Updates” button on the program first. This assures that the program has access to all the latest varieties and variations of malware before the scan.
I hope this post has given you some food for thought (and action). Performing regular maintenance on your system will help keep it in peak performance condition. If you have questions about the information presented here, post your questions here and I will be glad to address them in future posts as time permits.
Note: Microsoft provides recommendations and information on using Windows built-in software for scheduled maintenance here: Microsoft's Scheduled Maintenance web page.