Keep Your PC in Ship Shape

Speed up XPIf you work in a MS Windows environment, sooner or later you will ask your IT person the question that he or she hears at least once a day: “Why is my PC so slow? It never used to be.”

There is no short answer to this question because there are a lot of reasons why a perfectly good machine could start behaving like a calculator from 1982. Computers can be compared to cars: They need looking after and TLC. The same way that you would wash your car, keep the radiator filled with coolant, change your oil every 10,000 miles and occasionally vacuum the floor to remove debris, you should look after your computer.

I have put together eight of the best tips for this sort of regular “oil check and valet” for PCs. The article focuses on Windows XP because this is the most common operating system in office environments. The same tips can be applied to Windows Vista, but some of the tools described may have different names or may be found in different locations. If you follow these guidelines, you may never have to call the IT person to your desk again.

Tip 1: Defrag your disk drives

The word “defrag” always conjures up an image in my head of someone relaxing after a hard week’s work. The word itself is actually short for “defragment” and it’s what we IT people do to help get a computer thinking straight. Basically, whenever you open a document or save it to disk, it gets written back onto the computer in little groups called blocks. Computers open and save things all day and eventually they stop saving these blocks of data in a straight line. Sometimes they squish some of the data into spots where you may have deleted something and the rest of that data somewhere else. As a result, your computer slows down because it takes longer to find all the pieces of the document you are opening. Enter defrag: When you defrag, you put all the data on your computer in a straight line, which makes it easier to read.

You should defrag your computer once a month to keep it shipshape. I would suggest running a defrag on a Friday afternoon just before you go home. That way when you get back on Monday, it will be finished. Here’s how you do it:

  1. Open My Computer.
  2. Right click the local disk volume that you want to defragment, and then click Properties.
  3. On the Tools tab, click Defragment Now.
  4. Click Defragment.
  5. Go home and relax.

Tip 2: Take out the trash

It’s really easy to let your desktop and My Documents just start overflowing with things you don’t really need. This can slow you down in many ways. The most obvious is that you won’t ever be able to find the file you are looking for without the search tool. In turn, the search function is slow because there is too much to search through. Save space and don’t keep files that you don’t need, or at least organise them properly. Create a folder system that you understand and go with it. Most importantly, you should empty your Recycle Bin whenever you have deleted a lot of files (make sure you don’t delete anything you have been working on for six months). It’s amazing how much space can be wasted by things sitting in the Recycle Bin.

The next three tips are all related.

Tip 3: Uninstall unused software

Do you have software installed that you don’t need? Remove it; your PC will thank you. Be sure to check with your IT person if you are unsure about what should or shouldn’t be on your PC.

  1. Click Start and then Control Panel.
  2. Click Add/Remove Programs.
  3. Look for software you may have installed but don’t use and remove it.

NOTE: Try not to remove anything that says it’s a Windows Update or Service Pack. Try not to install packages you won’t need in the future.

Tip 4: Practice safe software

As mentioned in a previous article, you should be aware of what software you download and install from the Internet. Icon packs, poker games, Zwinki avatars and lots of other gimmicky “free” software is only free because it’s loaded with nasty spyware. The software publishers make money by selling your personal data to marketing people. If unsure, ask yourself this: Is this software at all gimicky and of no real practical use? If the answer is yes, then don’t install it. This sort of free software should not be confused with Open Source software. Try to avoid file-sharing software like Limewire, unless you want to unleash a plague of spyware and viruses.

Tip 5: Check regularly for spyware

Spyware and adware creep in wherever there is a computer connected to the Internet. Even people who never install anything gimmicky can end up with some sort of advertising gremlin intent on slowing their PC down.

This is the reason antispyware software was invented. I recommend Spybot Seek and Destroy. It can be found here:

Tip 6: Use Disk Manager to clear space

Some times no matter how much we clean up and organise our files we still end up running out of space. Another really easy way to clear up some space is with the Windows disk manager.

  1. Open My Computer.
  2. Right click on the drive you want to clean up.
  3. Select Properties.
  4. In the general tab click the button Disk Cleanup.
  5. Wait while it calculates free space.
  6. Tick all the checkboxes; especially compress old files.
  7. Click OK and go and make a cup of coffee.

Sometimes disk cleanup will bomb out or hang. In that case just try again until it finishes.

Tip 7: Always Eject USB sticks

Everybody has a USB stick that they use occasionally. They are handy for storing photos, taking work home or carrying the latest episode of Lost to a friend’s house. What most people don’t realise is that after you have copied a file onto your stick you shouldn’t just pull it out and walk off. If you don’t eject it you could corrupt your data.

  1. Look in the system tray. It’s at the bottom right of the screen where the clock is.
  2. Look for an icon with a grey disk and green arrow (If you hover your mouse it will say “Safely Remove Hardware”).
  3. Right click and select Safely Remove Hardware.
  4. Select your USB drive.
  5. Click Stop.
  6. Click OK.

This way you will never lose data on your USB drive. I still wonder every day why this Windows function hasn’t been simplified to one single click. I presume if they did that there would be fewer things for IT people to wonder about.

Tip 8: Always shut down properly before switching off

This is pretty self-explanatory. If you shut down your PC by clicking “Start” then selecting “Turn Off Computer” you will save a lot of grief. You never know what unsaved documents you may have left open. A proper shutdown will let you know if you haven’t saved something. It is OK to turn a PC off at the wall if it has hung and is not responding.

Well that’s it, eight tips for a healthier PC. If you follow these tips you will be sure to cut your computer grief in half and you will definitely make better friends with the IT staff.