Is your PC healthy? Don't be too sure. Think back to when you heard a kerklunk sound coming from the hard drive. Or maybe you remember the last time your Internet connection was down (and I don't mean just a little depressed).
The best way to find out what's wrong is to take a proactive approach: Check under your PC's hood with the following mostly free diagnostic tools, and see if anything is amiss--before disaster strikes.
Hard Drive Health
Hard drives are about as stable as the stock market. The more you know about your drive--the brand-specific idiosyncrasies and the diagnostic sounds that drives produce--the better prepared you are for the inevitable crash. Here are a couple of helpful services and programs.
Hard Drive Inspector: This utility is always on guard, monitoring all your drives for spin rate, seek time, and almost 20 other potential problem spots. Hard Drive Inspector gives you technical data, including the drive model, firmware version, and serial number, all things you'll need to know when calling for warranty support.
It displays the hard drive's temperature in the system tray. If the drive gets too toasty (I have mine set for 120 degrees Fahrenheit), the program can send you an e-mail alert--or, better, automatically put the computer in Standby mode.
You can view a summary health report, which typically has enough information for most users; the S.M.A.R.T. report has the details. The program costs $30, but you can download a 15-day trial version of Hard Drive Inspector to get a feel for the tool.
DataCent's Hard Drive Sounds: You shouldn't hear more than a low hum from your hard drive. But drives don't know the rules, and they often make weird sounds, emitting thuds, screeches, knocks, or whining. Determining whether one of the sounds means trouble can be, well, troublesome.
The data-recovery company DataCent has an extraordinarily helpful site that plays the actual sounds of bad or unstable drive heads, stuck spindles, wobbly bearings, and media with bad spots, to name a few. You can hear your specific drive brand.
The company also offers another valuable tool that lists typical hard-drive failures by manufacturer.
Broadband Speed Tests
Does your broadband Internet connection feel more like a sluggish dial-up link? Put it to the test by recording your connection speed every 30 minutes or so for a couple of days. Keep a log, and if the speed is nowhere near advertised rates, send the results to your ISP--and raise a ruckus.
If you complain vigorously yet politely, chances are good that the provider will have you back at full speed ahead in short order. With all of the following tests, resist the temptation to check e-mail or browse the Web while testing, so as not to alter the results.
Quick tip: If any of these online tests don't work, give me a call for help. Just kidding--instead, make sure you have the current version of the Flash Player; if not, download and install it.
DSLReports: The granddaddy of online testing, DSLReports gives you a stack of tests to try. The Speed Test has a cool car-dashboard-like interface that watches your upload and download speeds. You can test your speed by using any of six servers in different locations. You'll obtain a good average by testing with two; try one close to home and another across the country.
If you're worried about your connection while gaming, use the site's Line Quality test to look for packet loss and excessive latency. Make sure to register and log in when testing--that way you can compare results months apart.
Speedtest.net: You'll see pretty much the same results from broadband speed testing at Speedtest.net. But this site is quicker to get to than DSLReports, and it has an oh-so-nifty interface, the kind you want to show off when friends are in your office.