7 Basic Windows PC Maintenance Tips

by Ronald Pacchiano

You don’t need a doctorate in computer science to keep your Windows PC running smoothly. Follow these seven simple PC maintenance tips to happier, more productive computing.

Most small business owners don’t know much about basic computer maintenance and as a result, their PCs slow down or crash. The real issue is neglect: failing to update security patches and antivirus software, overloading the system with trial software or running five toolbars at once in Internet Explorer.

Of course, many small business owners don’t know much about cars either, but they know to give it gas, change the oil every so often and to keep an eye out for flat tires. It’s the same with PCs. You don’t need to be an expert to keep your PC in relatively good condition. You just need to perform a little basic PC maintenance and, more importantly, be observant.

Here are seven simple basic steps that you can take to keep your PC running quickly and reliably.

Keep Windows Updated with the Latest Patches

Since Windows 98, Microsoft has provided access to Windows Update. Windows Update scans your system and updates it with the latest security patches and service packs. These are broken down into Critical and Recommended updates.

A new version of Windows Update, Microsoft Update, is also available. In addition to Windows, Microsoft Update will also patch a wide variety of Microsoft applications, such as Office and Windows Defender. Best of all, you can schedule these updates to run automatically, so there is really no excuse for not having a patched system.  To access Windows Update click on the Start button, All Programs and scroll through the list to find it.

Keep Your Spyware and AntiVirus Programs Updated

No matter how good your spyware and antivirus software is, if it’s not updated or, worse, not running at all, then it won’t do you any good. Most antivirus applications load an icon in the Windows tray, which lets you verify its status at a glance. Always verify that the application is running after starting Windows.

In addition, these applications should be configured to perform definition updates everyday and complete system scans should take place at least once a week. Should you need a new antivirus scanner, I suggest using Avira Antivir. Not only is it free, but it always performs near to, if not at, the top of most comparison tests. To combat malware, I suggest A-Squared and Malwarebytes' Anti-Malware. Both are critically renowned for their ease of use and effectiveness; and they’re free.

Keep Your Applications and Utilities Patched

Believe it or not, all of the applications and utilities on your system are prone to security risks and need to be updated regularly. Programs that you use everyday like Adobe Acrobat Reader, QuickTime, Realplayer, Skype, WinZip and more require both maintenance and security updates from time to time.

Even applications that run in the background like Flash and Java are at risk. Trying to keep track of each of these individually can be a bit of a handful, but a nifty utility called Secunia PSI makes the job much easier. This free utility tracks a massive number of security exploits in applications and will automatically monitor your PC for susceptible apps. When it finds one, it directs you to a site where you can download and install the needed patches. This program is an invaluable resource for keeping your PC secured.

Remove Unused Applications and Other Junk

Your PC has a lot of non-essential data (e.g., crap) stored on it, much of which you might not even be aware of. For instance, Internet Explorer stores copies of the Web pages you visit, images and media for faster viewing later. Plus there are temporary files, your Internet history, cookies, and more scattered throughout your system.

Plus, when your machine was brand new it came pre-loaded with numerous pieces of trial software. This could be games, security suites, even full blown applications like QuickBooks or Microsoft Office. Many people never install these. Others have, but decided not to purchase them at the end of the trial. Yet they remain on the system, wasting space and bloating the Windows Registry. Over time, this can lead to performance problems, causing Windows to become sluggish and unreliable.

One of the easiest ways to combat this is to use CCleaner, a freeware utility for system optimization, privacy, and cleaning. This tool removes unused files from a hard drive and cleans up online history. But more important, it includes an outstanding registry cleaner. It even has an uninstaller to assists you in removing applications from your system.

Pay Attention to the Software You Install

I cannot stress this one enough. Many applications, especially freeware, often attempt to install additional software on your system.  For example, when I install RealPlayer it also gives me the option to install Google Chrome.

I’m actually like Google Chrome so, for me, it’s a bonus. However, some applications also try to install stuff I don’t want, like an additional toolbar in IE. In almost all cases you’ll be asked whether or not you want this extra software installed.

The trick is, and I know this can be difficult, is that YOU MUST PAY ATTENTION DURING THE INSTALLATION and actually read those screens that popup with the words on them and NOT just mindlessly click the “Next” button until the process finishes. If you follow this tip I can guarantee that the amount of junk installed on your system will decrease.

And should you find something installed without your authorization, uninstall it immediately. If it won’t uninstall, use Window’s System Restore feature to revert back to an earlier configuration. This brings us to our next tip…

Create a System Restore Point

Before you install any new software on your system, always create a System Restore point. Some software can play havoc to your system causing all sorts of strange problems. System Restore helps you restore your computer's system files to an earlier point in time when your system was working well.

It's a safe way to undo system changes to your computer without affecting your personal files, such as e‑mail, documents or photos. Having a restore point can significantly reduce your downtime. Plus this functionality is built right into Windows so there is really no reason not to do it.

To create a system restore point go to Control Panel and select Backup and Restore. Windows 7 users click “Recover system settings or your computer”. Vista users select “Create a restore point or change settings.” After you have created a restore point, you can access and use it easily through CCleaner. 

Defragment and Check Your Hard Drive for Errors Regularly

In order to help maintain the integrity of your data there are two hard drive tests that you should run at least once a month. The first is to Defragment your hard drive. Over the course of regular use, your files get fragmented or spread out all over your hard drive. So while an MP3 or WMV file appears as a single file to you in Windows Explorer, small pieces of the file could literally be spread across the entire hard drive.

Gathering all of these distant pieces back together into a single contiguous file makes file access faster. Depending on how fragmented the data on your drive is, defragmenting it could make your system noticeably faster.

The other test we are going to perform is a Check Disk. This tool checks hard disk volumes for problems and attempts to repair any that it finds. For example, it can repair problems related to bad sectors, lost clusters, cross-linked files and directory errors. Disk errors are a common source of difficult-to-track problems, and running this test regularly can significantly reduce your risk of problems.

Windows has a built-in defragmenter and check-disk utility. To access either of them just open Windows Explorer and right-click on the drive you want to examine. Select Properties and then click on the Tools tab. To defragment your HD go to the Defragmentation section and press the Defragment now button. To perform a check disk, go to the Error-checking section and press the Check now button.

Certain free third-party defragmentation utilities have some significant advantages to the one built into Windows. For instance, both Ultra Defrag and Smart Defrag perform the job much quicker than the built-in version. You can schedule them to run automatically — and transparently — in the background while you work. Try them both for yourself.

You don’t need to be a computer expert to keep your computer running well. Resolving these issues doesn’t have anything to do with understanding computers. It has to do with paying attention to what you’re doing and actually reading those messages that popup on screen during an installation. Just follow these basic steps, and I guarantee you’ll computer will be safer and far more reliable.

Ronald Pacchiano is a contributing writer for SmallBusinessComputing.com.

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This article was originally published on Wednesday Feb 10th 2010
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