Chapter 26 - Preventative maintenance

You bring your car in for regular tune-ups and oil changes, so why not give your computer the same care?

Windows and Mac operating systems feature a handful of built-in utilities that will help you keep things humming along. Add-on programs such as Symantec's Norton Utilities (available for both the PC and Mac) offer even more options and improved data recovery.

Let's look at some ways we can avoid problems.

Scan disk

Whether you're running a Mac or PC, your computer will automatically scan for problems after a crash. This utility will detect minor errors in your hard drive that could be caused by power glitches, lock ups or other inconsistencies. If the software finds anything, it will ask if you want to fix the errors (and there's no reason not to).

Windows users can also run Scan Disk themselves (you'll find it under Start - Programs - Accessories - System Tools) and it's a good idea to do so about once a week. Using the Task Scheduler, you can set it to run automatically.

Disk errors should be occasional at most. If Scan Disk is regularly detecting errors, it could be the sign of a more serious problem. If Scan Disk is locking up on you, try running it in Safe Mode.

Disk Defragmenter (Built-in for Windows only)

When a computer saves data to your hard drive, it uses whatever free space it can find. That means a large file could be spread across several different physical sections of the disk. It's know as fragmentation, and it might be fine for saving a file, but it's inefficient when you have to go back later to retrieve it.

Disk defragmenter (under Start - Programs - Accessories - System Tools) is a PC utility that reorganizes your hard drive data to eliminate fragments and piece the files back together. It also packs all your free space into one large area.

It's recommended that you run defrag every month or two. Depending on how much the contents of your hard drive have changed since the last defrag, this process could take anywhere from 10 minutes to several hours or more. That might seem long, but if your computer had been quite fragmented, you should see a significant performance boost.

If your hard drive is particularly full, it will become fragmented more often and Disk Defragmenter will typically take longer to run.

If you're using a Mac with OS X or higher, according to Apple, you no longer have to defrag your hard drive.

Rebuilding your desktop file (Mac only)

If your Mac is slowing down to a crawl, it might be time to rebuild the desktop file. Other signs that it's time to rebuild are when icons sometime appear wrong or you're seeing "application not found" errors.

It's easy to do. Just hold the Command (Mac Command key) and Option keys when you start up. It's good to rebuild the desktop file about every two weeks or so.

Uninstalling software (Windows)

Large hard drives can hold a lot of programs. Many of those we'll never run.

To get rid of applications, go to Start - Settings - Control Panel, then click on the Add/Remove programs icon. You'll see a list of programs currently installed on your computer and you can free up some disk space by getting rid of ones you don't use. If you have the original CDs, you can always reinstall them later.

This is a necessary Windows utility because most programs do not confine their files to one folder. They're often spread across the main folder and a few system folders, so they're hard to manually delete.

The Windows uninstaller does not do a perfect job of deleting all of the related files. Add-on programs such as Norton CleanSweep (Symantec) are better at thorough cleanings.

The Mac doesn't have a built-in uninstaller. You can get rid of most of a program by dragging its folder to the trash, but it might leave some files and extensions behind. You can do more thorough uninstalls by buying a program such as Aladdin Systems' Spring Cleaning.

Virus scanner

As we discussed in "Chapter 20," running anti-virus software is imperative, especially if you're downloading files from the Internet. Again, the two major players in this genre are Norton AntiVirus and McAffe VirusScan, although there are many others that can protect you as well.

Disk cleanup (Windows)

If you'd like to get rid of some of unnecessary files on your hard drive, click on the Start menu and go to Programs - Accessories - System Tools - Disk Cleanup. The utility allows you to remove temporary files, duplicate files and others that don't need to be there.

This utility pops up automatically in Windows when your drive gets too full.

Backup

If your hard drive were to go kaput today, where would you be? Do you have your important documents saved elsewhere?

If you have the original CDs from your operating system and software, you could at least get your system back, but you need to make sure that at least your data is somewhere safe.

This is the strategy that Merrill uses.

"Since all of these personal files are under My Documents, I have only to back up that file which will include all its subdirectories and folders," Merrill says. "These can be reopened on a new hard drive or a new computer having the same software installed as was used originally."

A floppy disk drive can be used to save documents and other small files. In Windows, just go to My Computer and double click the A: drive. Then, using Windows Explorer or an open folder, drag and drop any files from their original location onto the A: drive window. Windows will make a copy of the file onto your floppy disk.

Zip drives can help with larger files such as print-quality graphics and MP3s. A tape drive will let you back up the entire contents of your hard drive. CD recorders also can be used for this purpose and most now come with some sort of backup software.

Programs such as Norton Ghost (from Symantec, $70) allow you to create an exact image of your hard drive's contents onto CD- or DVD-ROMs. The program is particularly useful if you've bought a new hard drive and want to transfer your old contents to the new disk.

There are also Web sites that will let you store data at a reasonable price. Of course, you'll need a high-speed connection if you're expecting to upload large files.

Create a startup disk

When Windows is installed on a PC, a start up floppy disk is created to be used in emergency situations. Unfortunately, if someone else installed it for you, you might have no clue where that disk is.

You can create one at any time by going to Start - Settings - Control Panel and double clicking the Add/Remove Programs icon. Choose the startup tab and click create disk (you'll need your Windows CD and a blank floppy disk).

Keep the disk handy in case you can't get your PC to start. You can place in the floppy drive before powering up to at least get basic access to start troubleshooting.

A free Windows add-on

Tweak UI is a free utility that should be included with Windows but it's not. It is free, though, and can be downloaded from Microsoft.

Tweak UI adds a new icon to your control panel that lets users tinker with Windows settings that typically required editing the registry (a real pain!). Clicking on the repair tab allows you to rebuild icons and file associations, similar to rebuilding the desktop on the Mac.

Environment

Preventative maintenance also involves maintaining an adequate environment for your computer.

Computers should be kept cool, preferably at a temperature around 72 degrees. Even if you shut your computer off at night, consistency is still important. Components that shift from hot to cold and back again will weaken over time. In fact, many people (I, for one) leave their computers on all the time to avoid the constant hot/cold changes. The disadvantage of that method, of course, is your computer eats power 24 hours a day instead of maybe 8.

Avoid moisture and dust, and keep static electricity to a minimum, especially if you're tinkering inside the box. If you're installing a new board or RAM chip, always ground yourself first (touching the power supply works) or use an antistatic wristband.

I know your computer case might be made of metal, but NEVER STICK MAGNETS ON YOUR COMPUTER! Hard disks are magnetic storage devices and you could lose data.

Your monitor might be eating up a lot of desk space, but don't crowd it. Allow adequate breathing room by not placing anything on the ventilation grills. You don't want to overheat the electronics.

UPS

Your computer runs off of 110 volt AC power (the kind you get from our wall outlets), but that source of energy is less than perfect. A bolt of lightning can cause power surges or spikes, and the entire town running their air conditioners on high could cause brownouts or dips in power.

An uninterruptible power supply (UPS) can help. A UPS offers protection against those spikes, while its built battery supplements power during the occasional dips below level. The battery can also power your computer for a few minutes (enough for you to save your files and shut down) in the event of a power outage.

Many UPSs will also filter signals from your telephone or network cables to prevent surges from them. (Lightning strikes commonly destroy modems).

NEXT - Chapter 27 - Upgrading