Like cleaning out the garage or weatherproofing the porch, you need to remove unused programs and scan your Windows Registry only occasionally. But computing also has equivalents to washing the dishes and vacuuming the living room floor--jobs you have to do all the time.
Luckily, you can automate most of these tasks.
Back Up Every Day
Backing up your data is like brushing your teeth: You have to do it, and do it right. And you should do it every day. Given the choice between getting a filling and losing an important file, I'd take the drill.
You don't have to back up your entire hard drive, just your data files. If you're using Windows XP or 2000, they're all probably inside C:\Documents and Settings. But if you use Windows 98 or Me, you'll need to back up each of these folders:
For a good, cheap backup program, I recommend Zip Backup to CD. It costs only $19, saves your backup in the standard .zip file format, and despite the name, can back up to other media as well.
And where should you copy those files to? CD-RWs and DVD-RWs work great, but a second hard drive is the best possible choice, especially if it's an external model that you can detach from the PC.
Weekly Scans and Updates
I'm not going to tell you to buy an antivirus program; I trust you already have one. But antivirus software is useless if you don't keep it up to date. It's likely that your antivirus software can update itself automatically whenever you're connected to the Internet. But if it doesn't, do it yourself once a week.
And while you're at it, scan your hard drive for new viruses once a week, too. Every antivirus program is different, but you should be able to find a control that lets you do a manual scan. Most programs will also let you schedule weekly scans so you don't have to remember to do them yourself.
Of course, not all online evildoers use viruses; some exploit security holes that Microsoft left in Windows. Like the proverbial Dutch boy, you need to keep plugging those holes. Luckily, Microsoft supplies the cement in the form of regular, downloadable patches. To see if there's one you need--and to download it if there is--just connect to the Internet and click the Windows Update icon that's near the top of the Start menu.
After you've fended off viruses and plugged holes in Windows, there's one more weekly job you should do: Scan your hard drive for errors. In Windows XP and 2000, open My Computer, right-click your hard drive, and select Properties. Click the Tools tab, then the Check Now button. In Windows 98 or Me, select Start, Programs, Accessories, System Tools, ScanDisk.
The Monthly Defrag
I've got one more chore for you. About once a month, you should defragment your hard drive.
Over the course of regular PC use, your files get fragmented--spread out all over your hard drive. That photo you just loaded may appear to be all in My Photos, but physically, bits and pieces may be spread out and mixed up like carrot slices in a well-tossed salad.
When everything is working well, this fragmentation doesn't do any harm. There was a time when file fragmentation slowed down computers, but today's fast and intelligent drives overcome that issue. But should disaster befall your drive, your chances of recovering a fragmented file are a lot worse than your chances of recovering a contiguous one.
In Windows XP and 2000, open My Computer, right-click your hard drive, and select Properties. Click the Tools tab, then the Defragment Now button. In Windows 98 or Me, select Start, Programs, Accessories, System Tools, Disk Defragmenter.