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Annual PC Checkup, Beginners Guide : Annual PC Checkup


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There comes a time in every once-new computer's life when it just doesn't feel fresh anymore. You know, when it's taking 5-10 minutes to boot up into Windows, the fans are making funny squealing noises, and there's a wad of orange cat hair protruding from the rear fan grille. It's the computer equivalent of senility, your once precious box has lost its edge.Time for action.

Sure, you could pop down to your local computer mart for $200 or so of fresh parts to keep the dust from settling, but for those of us on a budget there is another option. For starters, there are a fair few things you can do to make your old faithful feel (somewhat) like new again without much expense. Let's take a quick look at some of the most common hardware and software problems related to constant use, and find some quick solutions.

First though, an list of things you are going to need; a "PC first aid kit" if you like:

- Phillips head screwdriver

- Can of compressed air (from your local computer, electronics or hardware store)

- Can of mechanical oil (preferably not WD-40) with a dropper.

- Windows XP Home or Professional CD

- Soft cloth.

- Cat repellant.

Ok, forget about the cat repellant. It's hard to find, anyhow, and the can of compressed air will do in a pinch. Just turn it upside down and aim. Try not to do this near open flames however, unless you are looking for a more permanent solution to your cat/computer issues.

Fan problems are by far the most common age-related computer health issue. Fans are essential to your PC's well being, and they will gum up eventually, unless you habitually work in a clean room.

Common computer fans include the CPU heat-sink fan, possibly the most essential mechanical part in your computer, especially if you happen to be running one of the newer AMD processors. Problems with this fan can cause all kinds of crashes and software glitches due to heat. If that fan stops, so does your computer, potentially forever, with a little wisp of very expensive smoke.

Other important fans are the Power-supply fan at the rear of the case, which is often the only source of airflow in and out of the computer, and any case fans that may have been added to promote air movement and stop the dust from settling.

Dust settling is a major problem for fans, and computer health in general. Generally speaking, the higher you place the computer the better the air-flow in and out of the case, and the longer the fans are going to last. This is simply because of the dust and other airborne nasties like the aforementioned cat hair and cigarette smoke.

Cigarette smoke and computers

Dust works its way into the fan and sticks to the grease and accumulates there, eventually interfering with the action of the fan and causing that horrible grinding 'sick computer' noise.

Before we get to the solutions for this problem, I'd like to share a brief rant about two of the major contributors to the death of innocent computers: Cigarette smoke and pet (cat) hair. I've seen horrible things happen to systems in the houses of smokers and pet owners, and I bet any computer tech could tell you likewise.

Two stories to illustrate the point: A couple of years ago at my store, a rather old PC was brought in by a rather old gentleman, who smelled rather strongly of cigarette smoke. It had stopped working he said, innocently. The computer case had turned from beige to a sort of parchment yellow, and I guess this should have been a clue to what awaited us inside the case. Ignoring the warning sighs, we opened it up.

Suffice to say that the gentleman in question had obviously not been particularly discriminating in his smoking habits around the system... There was a thin layer of yellow residue (tar?) layered across the inside of the case, to which a considerable amount of dust had actually stuck.

The smell was... unpleasant. Needless to say, we closed it up instantly and made a half-hearted attempt at diagnosing the problem. When it unsurprisingly failed to boot, we bundled it up and handed it back to the customer; "Sorry, nothing we can do." He seemed rather offended when we suggested that his smoking habits might be the issue, and went off looking for "someone who knows what they are doing!"

Now granted, this is an extreme example, but cigarette smoke can be very damaging to computer components because of the residue it leaves behind. You wouldn't smoke around kids would you? Good, because if you work around computers for a living, now's a good time to practice discretion for later in life.

As for pet hair, one of my best customers at the store had persuaded me to do an on-site upgrade for him since the huge shiny server case he had just bought from us was too heavy to safely get out of his apartment. This particular gentleman depended on computers for his livelihood.

Imagine my surprise then, when I arrived and found this drool-worthy $600 split- server case with its thousands of dollars of state-of the art components and multiple SCSI drives sitting on the floor in a small, semi-closed cupboard next to the cat-litter box.

It will come as no surprise that the filters this case thankfully had installed on the outside fans were absolutely clogged with cat hair and assorted particles. The computer was still working fine, but it had only been there for a couple of weeks.

I shudder to think what it would have looked like after a year. Cat hair especially is extremely fine and light, and will clog up your fans rather quickly if allowed inside.

Cleaning and re-oiling fans.

Most case and heatsink fans are easily and cheaply replaceable at your local computer or electronics store, but if you do not feel like making the trip, here's the procedure for cleaning and oiling them, and hopefully squeezing a bit more life out of your investment.

Open the system while it is powered on in order to identify the fans that are causing trouble. Power off the system and remove the fans from the case. Clean all visible dust, dirt and residue from the fan blades and body with blown air and a soft cloth.

Note that compressed air should not be used to clean the fan blades as it will often spin the fan far faster than it is intended to, and may cause damage to the bearing inside, making the problem worse.

Static electricity is not an issue with fan parts, so any type of material may be used to clean it outside the computer case. Once the fan is clean, peel the sticker from the back of the fan, exposing the oil well. There may or may not be a rubber plug under the sticker protecting the oil well.

Once the sticker is removed, pry up the rubber plug with a fingernail or screwdriver if necessary and apply a single drop of oil to the inside of the fan. Replace the plug and sticker. Replace the fan and allow it to run for a minute or so to let the oil permeate the inside.

Hopefully this will eliminate your noise issues. Note that fans which have been exposed to excessive dust or hair may have particles clogging the fan assembly, in which case the oiling is only likely to help temporarily, if at all.

Standing dust on motherboards or PCI cards is actually not particularly harmful to the innards of your average PC unless it is allowed to collect in such quantities that it disables fans, chokes heatsinks (reducing their ability to pass heat) or clogs expansion slots.

Potentially much more harmful is the damage that can be caused by improper cleaning.

Cleaning the inside of your PC

Static electricity, while not necessarily the constant danger to components that it is sometimes presented as, can still be a real threat to your system if you decide to start rubbing fabric over your motherboard to clean it. The same things goes with vacuuming. Just think, a plastic or rubber hose, static generated by the belt or motor, powerful suction. All of these spell possible disaster for your PC.

The safest way to spring clean the inside of your case is with a can of compressed air from your local computer, electronics or hardware store. Here's the procedure.

Assuming no fans need servicing, as covered above, carefully remove the CPU fan and heatsink. Using the compressed air, blow any standing dust from in-between the blades of the heatsink. Replace the heatsink.

For the next step, it's best to have the computer outside, or in an area that can be easily vacuumed afterwards, as cleaning with compressed air can generate a lot of loose dust and assorted airborne gunk.

Thoroughly clean the inside of the computer of all visible standing dust using the compressed air. Be sure to hold the can as close to vertical as possible to prevent unnecessary liquid spray. This is unlikely to harm your components though.

Be aware of your health too, since when you first let loose with the compressed air, you are going to create a huge cloud of nastiness which you want to avoid breathing in. Goggles might be a good idea here too. Generally speaking, you are simply trying to remove as much of the visible dust as possible.

Once you are finished, there's a neat little experiment you can pull with the rest of that compressed air can.... but nah.... you wouldn't be interested in that. ;-)

Once your computer is cleaned out and the fans seen to, there are a few other things you can and should do to help make the future a cleaner, brighter place for your system.

While you have your case open, it is also a good time to give the motherboard a close inspection for blown or leaking motherboard electrolytic capacitors. The tops of capacitors on some older motherboards may be domed, indicating a buildup of gas inside, or show signs of some brown liquid that has leaked out at the base of the capacitor.

Preventative maintenance

First of all, if your computer is on the floor under the desk, move it if at all possible. As stated before, "the higher the better" when it comes to keeping your computer clean. Next, give the inside of your computer a quick once over to make sure all components and connections are firmly and correctly attached.

Once you have assured yourself that everything is where it should be, it might be time to think about neatening your system up, especially the wiring. Good airflow is essential in a modern PC, and in addition to case fans, rearranging the wiring in your system can substantially improve airflow and prevent dust from settling.

Bundling your cables also has the side benefit of assuring that a stray wire is not going to foul up your heatsink fan at some point. Nothing especially complex needs to be done with this, just some plastic ties to bundle loose wire out of the way of the airflow. Drive cables, while too thick to be bundled, can be safely folded over themselves, or tucked out of the way in a free drive bay. If you are feeling especially decorative, cable tubes or even rounded drive cables should be readily available from your local computer store.

Software solutions

To sum up, it's essential to give your system a thorough cleaning once a year or so, if you would like to avoid unnecessary repair bills. Keeping your computer in good working order is not difficult with a little care and attention.

Just remember, keep your cat away from the computer, like you would keep compressed air cans away from an open flame? And keep open flames away from your cat, since this would result in a smoking kitty, which as you could imagine from the above stories, is your computer's worst nightmare.

Windows needs a checkup too

As we're sure you've noticed, any version of Windows tends to accumulate "stuff" after a while, like a snowball rolled down a hill, except for the part about it picking up speed as it grows? Too much unnecessary baggage can slow your Windows installation to a crawl. The ultimate solution is, of course, to reinstall your operating system, but this entails a lot of extra work reinstalling your software and copying data, so what else can you do?

Well, there are several steps you can take towards refurbishing your Windows installation. Please note that this is not intended to be a comprehensive listing of software tweaks for Windows XP, but rather a list of procedures you can use to regain your PC's lost performance.

As mentioned, these tips are intended for users of Windows XP, but most will work on previous versions of Windows, though the specific instructions may be different.

Defragmenting the hard drive(s)

Defragmentation of a hard drive is the act of re-ordering the data on the drive so that each file can be read continuously from the disk. By default, Windows XP will attempt to store any files it needs to write to the hard drive in consecutive clusters (a cluster is the smallest unit of storage space available on a hard drive) on the drive, so that the file can then be read continuously.

A hard drive which has been frequently used over a long period of time will have developed many fragmented files, files which are scattered over different clusters on the surface of the disk. This can occur because of many factors, for example uninstall programs that leave files behind, system crashes while in the act of writing to the hard drive, regular deletion of files, etc.

A file becomes fragmented when the portion of consecutive clusters on the disk that Windows begins to write into is not large enough to hold the whole file. The remainder of the file then needs to be written to a different physical area of the disk.

This does not have any effect on the operating system's ability to access the files themselves, but it does slow down disk access times (and by extension, any application that depends on disk access) due to the extra time needed to reposition the read heads of the hard drive to access the rest of the fragmented file.

Defragmenting the hard drive

Windows XP includes a disk defragmentation utility which you can use to re-arrange the files on the drive and eliminate fragmentation. This can have a significant affect on the speed of your computer.

To access this utility, go to 'start\programs\accessories\system tools\disk defragmenter.'

To begin with, you need to analyze your hard disk(s) to see if defragmentation is needed. Select a drive and hit the 'analyze' button. This could take a little while depending on the amount of data on the drive. Once the analysis is finished, you will have a graphical representation of your disk's level of fragmentation. See the pic below for an example of a highly fragmented drive.

Windows will also inform you if it recommends defragmenting the drive. You must have 15% of the drive free in order to fully defragment it. Anything less will result in only a partial re-ordering of the files.

You may need to delete a few things to obtain this free space. To defragment the drive, select it and hit the 'defragment' button. Note that depending on the size of the drive and the level of fragmentation, this can take a long time. It's a good thing to leave overnight, since you should not run anything else while doing the defrag.

Disabling auto-run programs

A common source of slowdown (especially while loading the operating system) is excessive software, specifically applications that run themselves automatically at startup.

If the notification area at the bottom right corner of your taskbar looks something like this (see right), y ou may well be slowing your system down unnecessarily, especially at startup when these programs are loaded. There is no need to have the majority of these applications load at startup, since you can easily run them from the start menu when they are needed.

Unnecessary startup programs

There are a few ways of removing unnecessary startup programs. You can go to 'start\programs\startup' which is a directory Windows XP uses to launch application shortcuts on boot-up. If you remove the shortcuts from this directory, the applications will not load on startup.

This directory can also be a repository for various badness such as spyware and virus software, so if there are files here which are not shortcuts and you don't recognize them, you may wish to consider removing them anyways, as Windows will not place critical files in this directory.

The next location for removing unnecessary startup files is the handy MSCONFIG utility that has been resurrected from the graveyard of Windows 9x specially for XP. Go to 'start\run' and type 'msconfig' to access the utility.

The 'startup' tab in MSCONFIG provides access to several other applications that are started at boot up and are running in the background. By examining their Filenames and directories, you should be able to get a feeling for what is necessary and what is not.

Be aware than several viruses and worms have a habit of disguising themselves with authoritative sounding Windows system file names, such as the Win32.spybot.worm present in the above screenshot as MSCONFIG32.EXE.

Leave these for now if you are not sure. The other method for removing these programs is through the programs themselves, as many applications, for example MSN messenger, contain the option to remove the software from startup.

Disk cleanup utility

While not really a performance enhancer, the Disk Cleanup utility will check your drive and compile a list of temporary and unnecessary files that you can delete to free up space on your PC. It also offers the option to compress older data files to save room. It can be found at 'start\programs\accessories\system tools\disk cleanup'

Finding and removing spyware

Try downloading the Ad-Aware and Spybot search and destroy software mentioned in that guide. Update them both and run them to cleanse your system of unwanted software that may be slowing down your computer and Internet performance as well as compromising your privacy.

Scanning for Viruses

This is essential for the health of any PC, and may well improve your performance if your PC turns out to be infected, as several strains of computer virus may adversely affect your PC's operating efficiency. Reed my article on viruses and online security for more details.

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