Windows Tips: Basic Maintenance
Over the last few years Windows maintenance has been a pet theme of mine. I have given a variety of presentations and lectures and written a number of articles on the subject. Here I am going to get on my soapbox again. I know from experience that many ordinary home PC users would benefit greatly from just a small amount of basic knowledge on the subject. I also know from experience that there is a lot of inertia and considerable reluctance to learn that basic knowledge. It's a shame because I have encountered many instances where a PC user tells me about a problem that could have been fixed in 10 or 15 minutes with a little basic knowledge. Instead he or she loses many days waiting for a friend or relative to fix it or spends a fair amount of money for a technician. (Or in some cases even buys a new computer.) In this article I outline the basic things that I think would be of use to all PC users whatever their technical background. True, you could go through life and never need any of this stuff. On the other hand, a little preparation might just save you from a lot of trouble.
Updating Virus Protection
Most computers nowadays come with an anti-virus program. However, many people fail to keep their database of virus definitions updated. All the major anti-virus programs come with an update feature that should be used regularly. New viruses appear daily and updating every two weeks is not too often. Unfortunately, the major companies no longer provide unlimited updates but have started charging after one year's (or even less) usage. Depending on your version, subscriptions are in the range of $5 to $15 per year. There are still some free services but these are subject to change at any time. If you do need to buy a new anti-virus program, you may be better off buying a utility suite. For very little additional cost they include many other useful utilities.
Preparing for Disaster
Unfortunately, hard drive failure is not all that uncommon. If it occurs, everything that is on the drive is lost (unless you resort to an expensive recovery service). Also, if you do get a virus, a lot of your disk may be wiped out. Or, in a variety of other ways, files may be corrupted or lost. Botched software installations, system crashes, or just plain carelessness can lose valuable data. Thus, backups are essential. Ideally, the whole system should be backed up to some external storage device. At a minimum, all files such as passwords, favorite places, address books, financial and tax records, important documents and correspondence (including e-mail), and any other personal data that has more than transitory value should be backed up to some place other than your hard drive.
Windows 98 (older operating system) comes with a backup accessory in Programs|Accessories|System Tools|Backup. The program may not be installed by default so you may have to add it from the Windows disk. The Windows disk also contains a tool called the System Recovery Wizard. Personally, I prefer other ways of backing up, such as Norton Ghost, but this may be more than the beginner or casual user wants to cope with. At the very least, regularly copy essential files using a CD-RW, Zip drive, Flash drives or other storage medium. . If you really don't have much that is important on your system, you could conceivably use diskettes but at a capacity of 1.44 Mbytes each you won't get much storage, even with some form of file compression. In addition to providing a way to restore the entire system, backup software generally provides a way to replace individual files.
Restoring the Registry
Less catastrophic than a hard drive crash, a corrupted Registry is nonetheless a major matter for the unprepared. Almost all Windows 9X home users that I have known never backed up their Registry and had a serious problem if anything ever happened to the Registry. Fortunately, Windows 98 automatically makes backup copies once a day for each of the last 5 days that the system has booted. (Of course, if you never reboot, you will not have this protection.) Restoring one of the five backup copies of the Registry is easily done by means of the system tool, Registry Checker (scanreg.exe). It does require going into DOS but the process is quite painless even for the novice. If one day your computer informs you that it won't boot into Windows because the Registry is corrupt and you are staring at the black and white DOS screen, simply type "scanreg /restore" (without quotes) and enter. You will get a screen asking which of the five Registry backups you wish to restore. They will be dated so pick one from a date when you know everything was functioning.
In Windows Me (and sometimes in Windows 98) you will have to use a boot disk because DOS is not available. It is imperative, therefore, to make a boot disk to have handy for any such emergency.
Windows comes with two system accessories that should be used regularly to keep the file system on the hard drive healthy. These are ScanDisk and Defrag. They can be accessed in Programs|Accessories|System Tools or by entering "scandisk" or "defrag" (without quotes) into the Run line. ScanDisk can be run in either the "Standard" or "Thorough" modes. The latter takes quite a while and need not be run very often. Microsoft suggests running Standard once a week, while Thorough is suggested once a month. Personally, I think the average home user could get away with using one month and four months, respectively, but the number is arbitrary. In any case, ScanDisk Standard should always be run after any system crash.
Heavy computer users should defrag once a week while once a month is probably adequate for average home use. The best procedure is to run right after ScanDisk. Note that the first time that Defrag is run is likely to be a lengthy session. It may take several hours, depending on your disk size and condition. At about 10% defragmented the system will seem to hang for many minutes but will eventually go on.
An important consideration in running either of these tools is to have nothing else running in the background.
A certain amount of housekeeping will help your system to be more efficient and stable. Windows programs use a lot of temporary files, which can accumulate at an alarming rate. In particular, the folders \Windows\Temporary Internet Files\ and \Windows\temp\ can really build up. These folders should be cleaned out periodically. An easy way to do this is to go to My Computer and right-click on the icon for the C: drive. Open the Properties sheet and make sure the "General" tab is selected. Then click "Disk Cleanup." You will be given a choice of temporary folders to clean, including the Recycle Bin. More on Disk Cleanup is at. Also, an entire article on cleaning up is at. Incidentally, if you click on the "Tools" tab in the properties sheet, you can access ScanDisk and Defrag from here as well as Microsoft Backup (if it is installed).
The procedures outlined here are not difficult. Nor do they require any special knowledge. However, a PC user who carries out these minimal basic steps on a regular basis is likely to have a better computer experience. Things may still go wrong but the prepared user will have much less trouble overall.
Gene Finley, Technology Presenter/Speaker
President & Chief Technology Officer of CompuSystems, Incorporated
Author of CompuTips Newsletter
Author of Small Business Entrepreneurial (SBE) Curriculum