Hardware Tips: Complete PC Preventive Maintenance Guide

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Inside the Box

Before cracking open the case, turn off the power and unplug your PC. Ground yourself before you touch anything inside to avoid destroying your circuitry with a static charge. If you don't have a grounding wrist strap, you can ground yourself by touching any of various household objects, such as a water pipe, a lamp, or another grounded electrical device. Be sure to unplug the power cord before you open the case.

Use antistatic wipes to remove dust from inside the case. Avoid touching any circuit-board surfaces. Pay close attention to the power-supply fan, as well as to the case and to CPU fans, if you have them. Spray these components with a blast of compressed air to loosen dust; but to remove the dust rather than rearrange it, you should use a small vacuum like the $12 Belkin MiniVak.

If your PC is more than four years old, or if the expansion cards plugged into its motherboard are exceptionally dirty, remove each card, clean its contacts with isopropyl alcohol, and reseat it. If your system is less than a couple years old, however, just make sure each card is firmly seated by pressing gently downward on its top edge while not touching its face. Likewise, check your power connectors, EIDE connectors, and other internal cables for a snug fit.

While you have the case open, familiarize yourself with the CMOS battery on the motherboard (see FIGURE 1

FIGURE 1: The CMOS battery on your motherboard may need to be replaced after four or five years.
). For its location, check the motherboard manual. If your PC is more than four or five years old, the CMOS battery may need to be replaced. (A system clock that loses time is one indicator of a dying CMOS battery.)

Look for Trouble

Give your PC a periodic checkup with a good hardware diagnostic utility. Two excellent choices are Sandra Standard from SiSoftware and #1-TuffTest-Lite from #1-PC Diagnostics. Go to PC World's download page to download the free version of Sandra (the full version of the application costs $35) or to download #1-TuffTest-Lite (the fully functional version is $10).

Adding and removing system components leaves orphaned entries in the Windows Registry. This can increase the time your PC takes to boot and can slow system performance. Many shareware utilities are designed to clean the Registry, but my favorite is Registry Drill from Easy Desk Software. The program is free to try and $40 to keep. Go to PC World's download page to download a trial copy of Registry Drill.

Windows stores files on a hard drive in rows of contiguous segments, but over time the disk fills and segments become scattered, so they take longer to access. To keep your drive shipshape, run Windows' Disk Defragmenter utility. Click Start, Programs (All Programs in XP), Accessories, System Tools, Disk Defragmenter. If your drive is heavily fragmented, you could boost performance (see FIGURE 2

FIGURE 2: Run Windows' disk defragmenter regularly to speed up hard-disk performance.
). Defragging may take hours, however. Disable your screen saver and other automatic programs beforehand to keep the defrag from restarting every few minutes.

Disk Defragmenter won't defragment the file on your hard drive that holds overflow data from system memory (also known as the swap file). Since the swap file is frequently accessed, defragmenting it can give your PC more pep. You can defragment your swap file by using a utility such as the SpeedDisk program included with Norton SystemWorks 2004, but there's a way to reset it in Windows.

In Windows XP, right-click My Computer and choose Properties. Click Advanced, and then choose the Settings button under Performance. Click Advanced again and the Change button under Virtual Memory. Select another drive or partition, set your swap file size, and click OK. Visit "Hardware Tips: Jog Your Memory for Faster PC Performance" for instructions on moving your swap file in other versions of Windows. If you have only one partition and no way to create a second one, and you have at least 256MB of RAM, disable the swap file rather than moving it: Select No paging file in the Virtual Memory settings (see FIGURE 3

FIGURE 3: Reset your swap file by temporarily disabling its Windows setting.
). If you have trouble booting, start Windows in Safe Mode and re-enable this option.

Hard-Drive Checkup

Windows XP offers a rudimentary evaluation of your hard disk's health with its error-checking utility: Right-click the drive's icon in Windows Explorer and select Properties, Tools, Check Now. (Windows can fix errors and recover bad sectors automatically if you wish.) If the check discovers a few file errors, don't worry, but if it comes up with hundreds of errors, the drive could be in trouble.

To conduct a more thorough examination, go to PC World's download page and download Panterasoft's free HDD Health utility, which monitors hard-drive performance and warns of impending disaster (see FIGURE 4

FIGURE 4: HDD Health alerts you to impending trouble using your drive's built-in S.M.A.R.T technology.
). The program works only with drives that support S.M.A.R.T technology, but nearly all drives released since 2000 are S.M.A.R.T.-compliant.

Many hardware and software designers humbly assume you want their program running on your PC all the time, so they tell Windows to load the application at startup (hence, the ever-growing string of icons in your system tray). These programs eat up system resources and make hardware conflicts and compatibility problems more likely. To prevent them from launching, just click Start, Run, type msconfig, and press Enter. The programs listed under the Startup tab are set to start along with Windows. Uncheck the box at the left of each undesirable program to prevent it from starting automatically.

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