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Fixing a Clunker: 4 Basic Computer Maintenance Tasks that Anyone Can Do

Fixing a Clunker: 4 Basic Computer Maintenance Tasks that Anyone Can Do

An aspect of computer ownership of which many computer-unsavvy owners are unaware is that a computer, like a car or a house, requires frequent maintenance to keep it operating at a peak, or even just a usable, level. The good news is that unlike many automotive and home maintenance tasks, the vast majority of routine computer maintenance tasks can be done by virtually anyone, without the danger of causing serious damage. The computer, after all, does most of the work. So, if you purchased a computer that doesn’t seem to be running quite as quickly as it once did, don’t worry! You probably won’t have to plop down another thousand dollars for a new system as long as you start taking the time to do the weekly and monthly maintenance your computer probably needs. Below are four routine tasks you can do to try to rehabilitate a clunker of a computer.

Defragment Your Hard Drive
Hard drives physically store magnetic bits of information, which can become fragmented over time. Imagine trying to read a book with the pages scattered all over your desk in no particular order, and you get the idea of what a computer has to do when running a fragmented hard drive. Truth be told, unless you hard drive has serious hardware problems, it shouldn’t be fragmented to the point that it causes serious performance issues. However, a monthly defragmentation is worthwhile, and if you have never defragmented your hard drive, you it’s probably a good idea to do so. Windows (XP and Vista both) comes with its own Disk Defragmenter, which you can access under Accessories and System Tools. Some software packages may try to get you to bite on fancy, expensive defragmenting software, but the tool that comes with Windows is plenty sufficient for most users. You can even set up Windows Vista for regular, automatic defragmenting so you don’t have to worry about it.

Get Rid of Spyware
Back in the old days, we didn’t have to worry about computers getting bloated with unwanted and surreptitiously installed junk aside from the junk we installed ourselves. Now we do. You can get spyware on your computer in the most innocent of ways, by downloading seemingly legitimate software or just by visiting websites. Getting at least one good Spyware removal program – and I recommend at least 2 for security sake – is a must. Free programs like Spybot Search & Destroy and Ad-Aware will work for most standard users. If you want even better protection, consider purchasing Webroot’s SpySweeper. Weekly spyware scans will not only improve computer performance, but also help prevent identity theft and other potential crimes against you.

Clean Your Hard Drive
Ever try to work on a project in a room filled to the brim with junk? Windows, when trying to operate on a cluttered hard drive, can have the same problem. You may have even gotten a message from Windows telling you that it has run out of disk space. That message doesn’t just mean you can’t download anymore songs from I-tunes: it’s also an indication that Windows is probably struggling to find space for its massive swap file – a file it uses sort of like a workbench in a garage. When that space runs out, Windows starts to putter. Some simple steps you can take to clean out the clutter are to empty your Internet temporary files (under Internet Options in Internet Explorer), empty your Recycle Bin (right click and empty), and use the Windows Disk Cleanup tool also under Accessories and System Tools. Those steps will clean up your hard drive a little, but the best way is to get rid of old programs and files you don’t need. Go to Control Panel and Add/Remove Programs (Programs and Features in Vista) to get a list of all the programs you have installed on your computer. Find the ones you don’t use, and you can install them from that same screen. You can’t be a pack rat with a computer, so if you don’t use it, dump it!

Clean Out Your System Tray
This is often one of the biggest culprits of lousy performance. The system tray is located in the bottom right corner of the screen. Yours might even have a little arrow that, if you click it, will expand the box, showing you a whole bunch of icons you couldn’t see before. That’s probably a good indication that you have a cluttered system tray. All of those programs are sitting in your memory, probably not doing much of anything besides slowing down your computer. Like spyware, some of them you might not have even realized were running: some software programmers seem to enjoy punishing you for installing their products by forcing them to run all the time. Right click on each icon to find out what each item is, then decide if you really need it running in the background, or if it is something you can get away with running only when you need to use it. Once you figure out which programs you can get rid of, you might have to search around for the option to shut them off. Many programs have an option that will allow you to stop them from running at startup. Others might require you to delete them from the Startup Folder under your Start, Programs menu (looking at the Startup folder is another good way to find out what programs are running without your knowledge). Yet others, unfortunately, are very pesky and make themselves extremely difficult to get rid of, short of uninstalling them completely. In fact, my Sony Vaio laptop came with AOL installed on it, and I still haven’t figured out how to get it to stop running – or how to uninstall it. That leads to another lesson: don’t ever install something with “AOL” in its name.

Aside from the four tasks above, there are several other steps you can take to improve your computer’s performance, but which contain some significant risk of damage if you don’t know what you are doing. These include cleaning out your system registry, shutting off unneeded services, and partitioning your hard drive for the Windows swap file. None of these require a huge amount of additional computer expertise, but should be approached with caution for those who have never done them before. Try the four basic tasks first, and if your computer is still struggling to run well, you might consider consulting a friend or reading up on the Internet for the next steps in fixing your computer troubles.


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