PC's aren't that different from a lot of us: They just sit around all day getting flabby. So if you want to squeeze another year out of your machine--or even retrofit it with Windows Vista in '07--there's no better time to put it on a regular program of tuning up and toning up.
I don't know your machine personally, of course. But even if it isn't bogged down with Trojans and spyware (as so many are), just the way Windows goes about its business will pack flab on the fastest hunk of hardware. A PC's Registry can get cluttered with outdated keys that waste processor cycles and have marginally useful or even harmful proc-esses in system memory. Just one day of computing will thoroughly fragment a C: drive. And out-of-shape PCs are more likely to be pushed around by hackers.
We've covered the security aspect before, so let's fast-forward through that discussion: Run Windows Update regu-larly and use ZoneAlarm Internet Security Suite as well as Mozilla's Firefox browser and its Thunderbird e-mail editor. Install Lavasoft Ad-Aware and Spybot-S&D to nuke new bugs that sneak through your firewall. You may even need a specific tool like Trend Micro's CWShredder for some strains. ZoneAlarm is $50 (all prices street); the rest are free.
As for keeping your PC in shape, we're not talking about triathlon shape, which would mean spending half your workdays on computer maintenance. But if your computer is going to load Windows and browse the web without wheezing, its disks, memory and Windows Registry need regular tuneups.
Whose PC Is It?
Theoretically, you control what gets put onto your hard drives and into system memory by clicking icons. But in reality, the only PC property rights you have are those you're prepared to enforce--which has become pretty complicated since you signed up for broadband.
A lot of programs and web pages today treat your PC as though they own it. Remember that "I accept the license agreement" button? They consider that carte blanche to load whatever self-serving processes they want, hold onto as much RAM as they can and, when unloaded, leave behind a Fourth of July weekend's worth of litter.
You shouldn't have to spend your time policing your machine, but if you don't, you're going to be exploited. As with security, start with a good general-purpose suite like Symantec's $70 Norton SystemWorks 2006 or Iolo's $50 System Mechanic 6. Both are jumbo toolboxes of scanners and utilities that will root out and fix 95 percent of your PC snafus, and you can choose whether they do it en masse or one problem at a time.
It's My Process
Just for fun, I ran a couple of PCs for several weeks without maintenance to see how much plaque would build up. Norton's scanners uncovered 118 invalid ActiveX entries, three invalid application paths, five missing file extensions, seven invalid help files, 38 broken shortcuts and 10 missing shared files on one. System Mechanic found a similar complement of system snarls on the other, along with 430MB of unneeded Windows and internet files. Both C: drives were a mess, and one had about 200MB worth of system memory tied up by processes whose applications were no longer running.
With a couple of mouse clicks, both suites had most of that junk swept out and Registry and RAM tuned so programs could load and unload cleanly. Some jobs, like disk diagnosis and optimization, are better addressed individually so you can determine the which, when and how. In fact, even though you could schedule most maintenance tasks to run automatically at off-peak times, that's not a good idea. Any program that can change a PC the way these suites can needs supervision.
It can seem foreign at first, but over time, these scanners and sweepers will help you get to know what's going on behind your foreground applications. Launch Windows Task Manager (press Ctrl-Alt-Del) and you'll see that every machine has a couple dozen strange-sounding processes running all the time. Which are Windows services, which belong to your applications, and which are potentially harmful strangers?
Task Manager won't say. But the alternative process viewers in System Mechanic and SystemWorks can help you decipher them. Problems vary, so you may also need Codestuff's Starter and HijackThis--a shareware pair favored by blogs and forums that helps solve parasite problems.
I wish you just needed to buy one program and push one button. But it's 2007, the bad guys are clever, and you can't afford not to keep up. There's no such thing as being fat and happy anymore.
These sites help you figure out what's necessary, what's safe and what's not.
- Shieldsup!: This Gibson Research site will probe your perimeter every which way to tell whether yours shields are UP!
- Tech Support Forum: Got a question? Someboy in this geek nation should have the answer.
- Winguides:Support forums and other technical resources maintained by PC Tools, publisher of several PC tuneup utilities.
- Spywareinfo:Volunteer sysops will hold your hand while you remove spyware and other bric-a-brac from system memory.
- Spyware Warrior: A list of what's naughty and what's nice out there.
Mike Hogan is Entrepreneur's technology editor.