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Your Annual PC Tune-up

Lincoln Spector

I admit it: I'm a lousy homeowner. The gutters are stuffed with leaves. Paint is peeling off the walls in chips the size of Volkswagen Bugs. Boxes have sat in the garage unopened for so long, one might contain Jimmy Hoffa.

But I do keep my Windows-based PC in good repair. (You should too; see "Regular Maintenance" for tips.) Like homes or cars, computers need to be checked over, cleaned out, and tuned up once or twice a year.

So make yourself a New Year's resolution to sit down at your computer and go through the steps below. Your system will be faster, less prone to crashes, and better behaved.

Remove Unused Programs

Programs you don't use anymore are like guests who have overstayed their welcome: You're much happier after you get rid of them. Not only will removing unused software free up space, but it could make Windows faster and more reliable.

But like guests, you can't just throw the programs out; you have to remove them carefully. Almost every application, utility, and game sold today comes with an uninstall program. For a list of all the software on your computer that has an uninstall program, select Start, Settings, Control Panel and double-click on Add/Remove Programs. If you're using Windows XP (news - web sites) Professional, make that Start, Control Panel, Add or Remove Programs.

These uninstallers aren't perfect. They often leave behind a lot of junk. But using them is better than not using them. And here's a money-saving tip: They're better than third-party, universal uninstallers that are supposed to remove any program you tell them to.

Just look over the Add/Remove Programs list and find any apps you don't use anymore. Highlight the program and choose to remove it.

Slim Down Your Boot

During the rainy season, leaves can clog the gutters of your house and cause flooding. And at any time of year, programs that load whenever you turn on your computer can clog your PC. Take a look at your system tray (that box in the lower-right corner of your screen with the clock and all the little icons) to see some of the programs that are loading when you boot up. If it stretches too far toward the Start button, your PC probably leaves you time for a coffee break between switching on the power and getting to work. Worst of all, too many running programs can make your computer slow and unstable.

Take a look at the software that loads when you turn on your PC and decide which programs you want to load. Start at the system tray and hold the mouse cursor over each icon until a description of the program pops up.

What should you keep? Any software that needs to be running at all times. This includes your antivirus software and firewall. (You do have antivirus software and a firewall, don't you?) But it doesn't include your media player--unless you're actually playing media at the moment--or an icon to launch some application that you can easily access from the Start menu.

Most of the system tray icons will bring up menus if you right-click them. Search the menus to see if there's an option to turn off the program's autoloading feature.

If you can't turn off a program from the system tray, you can always use the System Configuration Utility. Select Start, Run, type Msconfig in the box, and press Enter. Then click the Startup tab for a list of everything that loads when you boot up Windows. Uncheck the items you don't want running and click OK.

If you use Windows 2000 (news - web sites) and tried to follow these instructions, you've just run into a brick wall (or at least an error message). Windows 2000 doesn't have a System Configuration Utility. In its place, use Mike Lin's free Startup Control Panel.

Free Up Some Disk Space

Hard drives, like attics, accumulate junk. You've got temporary folders, backup files, the Recycling Bin, and who knows what else. Get rid of these files every once in a while to give yourself some breathing room.

Windows's own Disk Cleanup tool does a great job of clearing out your PC's attic. Just select Start, Programs (All Programs in Windows XP Professional), Accessories, System Tools, Disk Cleanup, and follow the prompts.

If you're thinking of doing some manual cleanup yourself--deleting files you don't need--it will help to know what folders on your hard drive are using the most space. A company called V Communications has a terrific tool called Size Manager for just this chore. It's not sold separately, but it's part of two other programs that are worth considering for many of your PC optimization needs: the SystemSuite collection of utilities; and PowerDesk Pro, the file manager that Windows Explorer ought to be.

Archive Old Data

But there are some things that belong in the attic, like four-year-old tax returns or that dreadful anniversary gift from Aunt Bea. And old computer files you want to keep belong in the digital equivalent of your attic, an archive. An archive keeps files out of your way when you're working on other stuff, protects them, and still leaves them accessible when you need them.

But where should you put that archive? If you can spare the room, another folder on your hard drive is convenient. If not, backing up to a CD-R will do. But either way, remember Spector's First Rule of Computing: Never keep only one copy of anything. I keep my archive on my hard drive and copy it to two separate CD-Rs.

To create an archive folder on your hard drive, select Start, Run. In the resulting box, type command /c md c:\archive (if you have Windows 98 (news - web sites) or ME) or cmd /c md c:\archive (if you have Windows 2000 or XP) and press Enter. You can open your new archive by selecting Start, Run, typing c:\archive, and pressing Enter.

Once you've got the archive folder open, go to My Documents and start exploring. Look for files that aren't going to change--projects you've completed, records from past years, photos and music files you want to keep. Then drag these files to the archive.

Now you've got to protect them; you don't want to accidentally edit or delete your treasures. Download my write-protect archive file and put it on your desktop. When you double-click on it, it will write-protect everything in the c:\archive folder.

And remember, put a copy of your archive folder on a CD-R or some other removable media.

Check Your Hardware

Does your home have termites? Dry rot? A faulty memory chip? Okay, your home won't have that last problem, but your PC might. That's why, every once in a while, you should make sure your computer is in good working order. A diagnostic program can let you know if everything is functioning correctly. V Communications' SystemSuite does an excellent job of kicking your PC's tires, looking at everything from the motherboard to the RAM to the ports.

If you're not willing to spend $60 for SystemSuite and just want a diagnostic program, I recommend #1-PC Diagnostics' #1-TuffTest. It costs only $10, and you can run it from a floppy disk. But it does have one serious limitation: It can't test anything that requires a driver, such as a CD drive or USB port. (There's also a free version, but it's not as powerful.)

Clean the Registry

There's nothing in your home quite like the Windows Registry--and you should be thankful for that. This overgrown piece of computer code is where Windows keeps all sorts of information, both vital and irrelevant. Most of the programs you've ever installed (including the ones you've uninstalled) put their own junk in the Windows Registry, too. Sometimes one program's Registry settings conflict with another's and Windows doesn't work properly.

That's why it's a good idea to run a Registry scanner--a program that looks for suspicious Registry entries and gives you the opportunity to delete them--every so often. But there's an inherent danger to Registry scanners: They might lead you to delete something you actually need. Fortunately, the good ones come with an Undo function so you can put back what they remove.

Once or twice a year you should scan your Registry and remove erroneous settings. The SystemSuite package includes one of the best Registry cleaners, RegistryFixer. If you don't want to buy the suite just to scan your Registry, try Iomatic's RegMedic, a $20 shareware program.

And there you have it, a PC that's ready for 2004. Even if you do nothing else to clean up your system before next winter, you've taken a giant step toward a faster, leaner computer. Now you can turn your attention to those boxes in your attic.

PC World Contributing Editor Lincoln Spector writes the monthly Answer Line column. His monthly humor column, Gigglebytes, appears on Byte.com. You'll find links to many of his works at The Link Inspector.

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