By Eric A. Taub
As we get older, most of us tend to put on weight. We bulk up in all the wrong places. Over the years we ingest a lot of things that are bad for us. We may still suffer the effects of long-gone viruses. Our gait slows, and we’re not as sharp as we used to be.
If computers could hear, they would think we were talking about them.
Computers, like people, do not always age gracefully. What was once sprightly and limber becomes sluggish and bloated. Like an elderly person who moves through life ever more slowly, a once-speedy PC starts taking many minutes to boot up, days to display the printer menu and what seems like eons to get to a Web site.
But there’s hope. Most office supply stores will be happy to provide you with a PC tuneup. Staples offers one free. Others, like Best Buy’s Geek Squad tuneup, cost $49.99 and up.
But do PCs really need tuning up?
Definitely, say the experts. “Proper PC maintenance and tuneup is essential,” said Dan Ackerman, senior editor at CNet.com. “If you owned a car you wouldn’t go two to three years without maintaining it.”
But unlike a car, a computer has few moving parts that can fail, so what goes wrong? Among the factors that can contribute to your PC’s general malaise are downloading third-party applications and failing to remove all their bits and pieces when you are done with them, adding and deleting files, asking the computer to start up multiple programs simultaneously, and failing to completely remove viruses and malware.
Taking a PC to a store for a tuneup is an easy way to set things right, but most often you will pay for the privilege.
“This is a customer acquisition strategy,” said Bob MacDonald, a Staples vice president overseeing the company’s no-charge PC tuneup program. “We look forward to selling services and hardware. The analogy is paying someone to wash your car, versus doing it yourself. Absolutely, what we do could be done by a consumer.”
Since washing a car is a task that can easily be handled by most adults, it seems like a good idea to learn what tasks are involved in getting your Windows or Mac PC running like new.
The Same Tools
Just as an exterminator uses mostly the same chemicals a consumer could buy to get rid of insect pests, you can use the same software as the pros do to get rid of computer bugs.
For example, Staples runs a suite of cleanup tools that it licenses from Norton. “Tools to do everything that Staples does are built into Windows 7,” said Ben Rudolph, Microsoft’s Windows PC Evangelist. “It’s not that hard to change your own oil.”
What to Do
A few procedures should go a long way to getting your PC’s vitality back.
It’s important to run antivirus software regularly. Microsoft offers MS Security Essentials, free antivirus software available from Microsoft.com. Mr. Ackerman recommends another free program, AVG Free (free.avg.com)
To avoid leaving any fragments of applications on the drive after you remove a program, use the application’s own removal tool, rather than just putting the program icon in the trash. If you don’t have the tool, do an Internet search for “[program name] removal tool.”
Defragment your hard drive. After extensive use, large programs tend to become “fragmented,” meaning that critical files are scattered across multiple sectors of a drive. It takes the computer extra time to find and assemble all the pieces needed to run the program. Defragmenting the drive will retrieve the files and place them closer together, speeding up the response time when you run the program.
The preinstalled Windows Disk Defragmenter tool, (search for “defragment” under the Start menu in Windows 7, or look for it under Programs>Accessories>System Tools in most older Windows machines) will defragment your hard drive, either manually, or automatically on a schedule you can customize.
Defragmenting a hard drive can take anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours depending on the size of the drive and how cluttered it is.
Remove large files like movies that you are no longer using. One easy way for Windows users to do so is to download “windirstat,” (windirstat.info) a program that will help you identify and remove the space-hoggers. Mac users can try Disc Inventory X (derlien.com).
To save space on your drive, Mr. Ackerman recommends no-charge slimmed-down versions of popular programs. Instead of Windows Media Player, he suggests using VLC (videolan.org/vlc). And to avoid taking up any additional space on your hard drive, try cloud-based programs like Google Docs instead of Microsoft Office.
Most maintenance tools are easily found in Windows 7. Click on the small white flag in the bottom right of the screen to bring up the Action Center. If you haven’t installed antivirus software, you’ll be prompted to find such a program. You’re also given the option to back up your hard drive.
For Mac Users
In the early days of Mac OS X, Apple’s operating system for its Mac computers, users needed to manually run various maintenance tasks, many of which are no longer necessary.
“Most Mac users don’t need to run any cleanup routines,” said Neil Ticktin, organizer of next month’s MacTech Conference in Los Angeles, and editor in chief of MacTech Magazine. “If you do need to run some system optimization program, it’s because you force-quit programs and you don’t let the machine do its job.”
For example, the common practice of “repairing permissions,” — making sure that the correct part of the system or user had the right to open a file — rarely needs to be done any longer.
Based on the Unix operating system, the Mac OS commonly runs cleanup routines in the middle of the night, if you leave the machine fully on.
If you don’t, the computer will run most of those routines automatically the next time it is awake. Manually defragmenting a hard drive is not necessary, as the OS does it automatically.
To clean up unwanted parts of programs that are no longer on the hard drive, Mr. Ticktin recommends Smith Micro’s Spring Cleaning application.
Both Mac and PC users agreed that the computer’s operating system was not typically to blame for slowing things down. Rather, one of the biggest culprits lies in “feature creep,” newer and bigger versions of favorite software. With our penchant for wanting the biggest and newest, the real culprit of sluggish computing may actually be … us.