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Published: Friday, 10/1/2010

Maintenance may be a bore, but it can save PC from death

BY BILL HUSTED
ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

ATLANTA - Preventive maintenance for a computer is a boring task. Unlike the panic you might feel when fixing a computer, it's routine drudgery not much different than regularly mowing the grass.

Luckily, I'm a guy who loves boredom. I spent a lifetime at pressure-filled advertising agencies, corporations and then newspapers. So a little boredom seems pleasant to me.

Come with me today as I teach you how to embrace boredom and - in the process - save yourself the unwelcome excitement of a computer emergency down the line.

Maintenance

Even commercial pilots with thousands of hours of flying time use a checklist each time they prepare to start up an airliner. It's the same with maintaining a computer: A checklist will help keep you honest.

Ironically, it's especially easy to forget a task that is performed routinely. So, create a schedule that lists each task and check it off once it is completed. And take full advantage of programs that use software that lets them run automatically on a schedule.

Hard disks will fail

It's just a fact of life - at some point, your hard disk will fail even if you do everything right. But that's not a good reason to skimp on maintenance. Use a defragmenting program - a good one comes free with Windows or you can buy the even-better PerfectDisk at http://perfectdisk.raxco.com.

You should also take advantage of the fact that most new hard disks use a technology called SMART that constantly monitors the condition of the disk. A free program, DiskCheckup (http://tinyurl.com/beonk), will translate the information provided by a SMART disk and can warn you that a disk may fail soon.

Back up your data

OK. We know your hard disk will fail some day, so it would be silly to ignore that looming death. Use backup software to make regular copies of the data your create. Use an external hard disk or an online service, or both.

Periodically check old backups by restoring a file or two from them. You can read more about backing up your computer and the products that do it here: http://pcbackupreview.com/.

Viruses, spyware

Use programs that detect and eliminate these threats. It's likely that your computer is already infested with at least some of these critters. In fact, the leading cause of computer slowdowns is adware and spyware.

Some users get a false sense of security because they believe an infected computer just stops working. Since their computer works, they think it's clear of threats. But it is more likely that an infected computer will gradually slow down and exhibit occasional glitches.

Power surges

Use a UPS (uninterruptable power supply) to filter the electricity that powers your computer. Make sure you get one big enough to handle your computer, monitor and devices such as routers and modems.

Test the system once a month or so by pulling the plug on the UPS. If you've installed a large enough UPS and if the battery is in good condition, it should provide enough battery power for you to leisurely shut down your system.

Windows advantages

Windows comes with some free tools that automate many maintenance tasks. Once you've set up these tools, they'll work behind the scenes with no tinkering from you.

You can learn how to set up these tools at this Web address: http://tinyurl.com/ov5ro2. That same page also offers some excellent tips from Microsoft on computer maintenance.

Do a little pruning

Computers are like closets. If there is plenty of space available, we tend to use it. Unused programs pile up, and photos and music files that you don't need add to the clutter. It's smart to clean out the junk occasionally. But there is a right way and a wrong way to do it.

For instance, with programs, it's important to use the built-in uninstall feature, rather than just deleting the folder that stores the program. You'll find more information on this type of housecleaning here: http://tinyurl.com/38jadj6.

The inside story

Many of you are reluctant to pop open the case on your computer. But taking a look under the hood should be a regular part of your maintenance program. Once you have the case open, check the exhaust fan vent to make sure it's not clogged with dirt. And if there is a blanket of dust on the main circuit board, use a can of compressed air - available at computer and camera stores - to blow the dust away.

While the case is open, check to see that all accessory cards are firmly seated.

One advantage of checking the guts of a computer on a regular basis is that you are more likely to notice any big changes.

For instance, a bad capacitor on the circuit board is likely to develop a bulge. That's a sure sign you need to take the machine into the shop. You'll find a photo on this page - http://tinyurl.com/3xgkhwm - that shows what that looks like.

A computer can work just fine, even after a capacitor loses the battle of the bulge. If you catch the problem early, you can have it fixed before it does bring your computer to a halt.

I told you in the beginning that this is a boring task. That suits me just fine. But if you crave a bit of excitement, do this. Use the maintenance process to learn more about your computer - that knowledge can pay off if a problem does strike.



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