Windows maintenance, done dirt-cheap

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Flush flotsam from the registry every once in a while

About the only thing really missing from Windows' own utility kit is registry cleaning and optimization. Microsoft says you don't need it. That may be true, however, there's a little neat-freak in a lot of us, as well as memories of the old days, where a bloated registry would actually take a noticeably longer time to load. That latter measurement may have been exacerbated by "watched pot syndrome."

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The Wise Registry cleaner does just that and compacts said registry, as well.

Strictly necessary or not, I run CCleaner or the Wise Registry Cleaner, which also condenses the registry, regularly. Largely because I install so much software to test, but also because I get paid to ignore my own advice to see what happens. Both programs do a bang-up job of sussing out and removing unused registry entries. They also clean up your hard drive by deleting cached files, and unlike Windows cleanmgr.exe, they do so for non-MIcrosoft software.

Update your drivers and BIOS, maybe

There's a truism: If it ain't broke, don't fix it. If your PC is functioning fine, then the hardware drivers and BIOS are doing their job. If your PC is getting quirky, and you're noticing irregularities in, say, printing, then search out the latest drivers for the device in question. If the driver has been submitted to Microsoft, then Windows Update or the Update Driver Software function will find it for you. If not, visit the vendor's site for the latest and greatest.

BIOS updates are often issued, but rarely required. Quite often you'll see the comment that you shouldn't update unless you're experiencing the specific problem that's fixed by said BIOS update. Other times, there will be support for newer technologies or peripherals, which you'll probably want. Apply as needed, but be careful. Make sure there's no power interruption, and make a backup of the old BIOS and your settings just in case.

There are third-party driver installers in many suites as well as some standalones. They can be useful at times as they keep track of drivers that may not have hit the Windows driver repository. Personally, I like to search myself to learn more about the update. But generally, if it ain't broke... I have many IT colleagues who totally disagree and install every update. Your call.

Monitor system health

Many maintenance suites install a background app to monitor your PC's health. You don't need it. Windows provides its own, and every modern BIOS (invoked by pressing DEL, TAB, F2 or another key at boot-up) monitors such things as CPU and system temperature, as well as hard drive health via S.M.A.R.T (Self-Monitoring, Analysis and Reporting Technology). At least it will if you tell it to—it's often turned off by default.

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Passmark's DiskCheckup displays S.M.A.R.T information from your drives and allows you to invoke their self-tests.

If there's something amiss with your hard drive, the BIOS will warn you at boot time, and if you suspect somethings amiss with your fan, CPU, or its installation, there's always a section of the BIOS section that will show you the temperature, fan speeds, and other data. Reboot and seek it out if you hear your fan whining more than usual.

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OpenHardwareMonitor shows you all you need to know about the current thermal state of your system components.

If you want to know what's going on with your CPU, memory, and disk access within Windows, open the task manager (taskmgr.exe) and choose the Performance tab (and Networking tab prior to Windows 8). Or, download the super-lightweight and free OpenHardwareMonitor. OHM is clean, simple, and shows you the temperatures of all the hardware components, voltages, fan speeds, and more. Motherboard vendors often provide monitoring apps as well.

If you want more detailed S.M.A.R.T info than your BIOS provides, or to invoke your drive's own integrated short and long self-tests (many BIOS's lack this facility), Passmark's free DiskCheckup is the ticket. If you suspect drive problems, run the short test first, then the long test (hours for large, multi-terabyte drives) if you're certain the drive is at fault. It may not be. I hate when that happens.

Maintenance schedule

You don't need a suite to keep your PC in ship-shape, though more power (and clutter) to you if you install one. Just forego real-time optimization features—they may hurt rather than help performance. See my recent System Mechanic 12.7 review.

For those of you who read the ending first, or like things neatly tied up, here's a brief synopsis, automotive-style.

Break-in period—remove unwanted software, disable unneeded background apps

30-day service (once a month)—Optimize SSD (Windows 8.1 Optimize Drive or equivalent), run disk cleanup to remove unneeded files

180-day service (every six months)—Defrag hard drive, search for and remove duplicate files and empty folders

Inspect and fix as needed—Upgrade drivers and/or BIOS to solve hardware issues; update software if necessary. Watch installation dialogs for unwanted side-installs of software. Disable background tasks that are re-enabled after software updates.

Required tools: Windows' own utilities, plus CCleaner, Wise Registry Cleaner, OpenHardwareMonitor, and Passmark DiskCheckup.

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