Keep a healthy PC: A routine-maintenance guide

Fred Langa

As with all devices, regular maintenance will keep your Windows PC operating smoothly through the years.

Here are the essential tasks that can help PC users — of all levels — maintain strong, secure, and stable systems.

Last year, Windows Secrets published the Jan. 10, 2013, Top Story, “Let your PC start the new year right!” If you haven’t done much to maintain your PC lately, that article is a great place to start. It’s chock-full of techniques virtually guaranteed to get your PC in the best shape it can be.

Once your PC is in good shape, what then? This article picks up where last year’s article left off.

Simple and routine maintenance is the key

PC maintenance doesn’t have to be time-consuming and tedious. Windows’ built-in functions, with an assist from some third-party tools, can automate much or all of the necessary tasks — making PC maintenance a mostly set-and-forget cinch.

With your PC on a solid maintenance schedule, you’ll enjoy smoother, faster, more stable, and more error-free PC operation all year long!

Oddly, most PC makers don’t include any kind of maintenance schedule in their system’s owner manuals. That might be because PCs are not all used the same way; a “one size fits all” maintenance schedule just wouldn’t make sense.

With that in mind, I’m providing two different maintenance schedules — one for heavily used PCs, another for lightly used systems. Here are some specifics:

Heavy use: Many Windows Secrets readers (including me!) use their systems every day, often all day long, for a myriad of small-office and recreational tasks. We depend on our machines for communicating, research, bill paying and banking, audio/visual pursuits, shopping, and many other activities. In other words, our PCs get a lot of use.

In addition, we not infrequently install new software, and we often modify Windows and application settings to suit our own needs and preferences. Because our PCs are vital to our day-to-day life, we typically pay close attention to their health; we keep Windows and all other software up to date.

Light use: Other PC users (probably the majority) are on their personal systems far less frequently — perhaps an hour or two a day or even less — and primarily for basic activities such as email, Web browsing, or listening to music. (Many of these users spend their work hours on IT-managed machines.)

Lightly used PCs are treated somewhat like an appliance — say, a toaster. The system’s capabilities are relatively fixed, system settings are rarely altered, and software is infrequently updated or changed.

Of course, not every PC falls neatly into one of these two categories. So keep in mind that the maintenance schedules described below are suggestions. Use them as a starting point, and feel free to make adjustments as you see fit.

A final note for all who provide ad-hoc PC support for family and friends. Consider sending them a link to this article, along with your suggestions for a maintenance regime they’re likely to keep. That could make their lives a little easier — and yours, too!

Most important, once you’ve settled on a maintenance schedule, stick with it. For tasks that can’t be automated, consider setting up a routine in your digital calendar — or print it out and stick it to the wall beside your PC. It’ll pay off in a big way throughout the years!

How to use the included maintenance schedules. The tasks listed in the tables below are, out of necessity, tersely worded. If anything looks unfamiliar or is unclear, don’t worry: you’ll find fuller explanations and plenty of how-to information in the text that follows the tables.

Using these tables is a piece of cake. Pick the one that comes closest to your computing style, review the listed tasks within it, and then look for the specific task header below for full details. Note that the charts in this article are images. You’ll find customizable Excel versions in the related Windows Secrets Lounge thread. (See the link at the bottom of this story.)

Heavy-duty PC maintenance chart

Figure 1. The heavy-duty PC-maintenance chart. This suggested combination of automated and manual tasks should keep even the most heavily used PCs running well.

Light-duty PC maintenance chart

Figure 2. The light-duty PC-maintenance chart. For these systems, you can mostly employ automated, set-and-forget procedures.

The nitty-gritty of regular maintenance tasks

Here are the specifics — category by category — including links to how-to articles and free software.

Security:

  • Anti-malware tasks: For maximum security, use an anti-malware tool that offers continuous, always-on protection. It should update itself and scan your system for malware on a fully automated schedule — and on demand.

    There are dozens of good anti-malware tools available. Here are some popular free apps to consider — and you’ll find many more, free and paid, with a simple Web search.

    – Microsoft Security Essentials/Windows Defender. Both are available as free downloads (site) for XP, Vista, and Windows 7. Defender is built into Windows 8 (no separate download needed). For more info, see the April 4, 2013, Top Story, “Microsoft’s six free desktop security tools.” Note: Microsoft Security Essentials and Windows Defender work best for experienced users. The following free alternatives might be better choices for less experienced users.

    – Avast Free Antivirus (more info)

    AVG Antivirus Free (info)

    – Avira Free Antivirus (info)

    – Comodo Antivirus (info)

    Most anti-malware tools let you choose both quick and full scans. A quick scan typically targets just the hard disk areas where malware most commonly resides and takes just a minute or two. Full scans examine most or all of the files on your PC; it’s much more thorough but also takes much longer.

    The above maintenance tables suggest that you run both quick and full anti-malware scans at given intervals. Check your anti-malware tool’s help system for specific information on setting the frequency and type of scan — and for establishing an automatic-scan schedule.

  • Verify anti-malware is up to date. Set your anti-malware app to auto-update regularly — ideally, every day. Check weekly that the app’s automatic updates are actually being installed.
  • Anti-malware: Full scan with standalone scanner: A separate standalone scanner is used periodically to verify that your main anti-malware tool is doing its job properly — and to remove any malware that made it past your primary defenses. Many such tools are available; most are free. For more on these apps, see the April 11, 2013, Top Story, “A dozen tools for removing almost any malware.”
  • Check Updates: Verify that Windows is fully up to date by opening Windows Update (e.g., via Control Panel/System and Security/Windows Update) and clicking the Check for updates link. While you’re at it, check other important software — especially browsers, Java, and Adobe Flash — via each app’s update mechanism.
  • Verify firewall: Firewalls are usually reliable, but they can be compromised by malware, accidental settings changes, or software problems. Verify that your firewall is working properly with any of several simple, free, and fast testing tools such as Steve Gibson’s ShieldsUP site and the HackerWatch site. For more info, check out the March 11, 2010, LangaList Plus column, “Let’s put your firewall to the test” (paid content).
  • Change passwords: You can significantly improve your online security by regularly changing all passwords. And never use the same password on different sites. If your cranial data storage isn’t up to the task (mine sure isn’t!), password-management software makes keeping dozens or even hundreds of passwords easy. (See the Oct. 17, 2013, Top Story, “Protect yourself from the next big data breach”; skip down to the section labeled “Stepping up to a standalone password manager.”)

Cleanup:

  • Clean temp files: The more you use your PC, the faster Windows accumulates various temporary files and folders. Left unchecked, the number of temp files can become massive, wasting disk space and dragging down system performance. There are many excellent disk-cleanup tools available, including Windows’ own cleanmgr.exe (see the March 13, 2008, LangaList Plus article, “Using Windows’ hidden Disk Cleanup options”; paid content).

    However, free third-party tools offer more options and easier automation. See, for example, Piriform’s free CCleaner (site) or the other tools discussed in the Nov. 10, 2011, Top Story, “Putting Registry-/system-cleanup apps to the test.” A Web search will reveal even more cleanup options.

  • Clean Registry: Windows offers no built-in way to remove obsolete and erroneous Registry entries. Fortunately, many of the same cleanup tools mentioned above (e.g., CCleaner) can declutter Windows’ Registry. A Web search will reveal more Registry-cleaner apps. Beware, however, cleaning suites that over-promise their ability to greatly improve system performance. (See the Nov. 10, 2011, Top Story, “Putting Registry-/system-cleanup apps to the test”.)
  • Remove obsolete update files: All versions of Windows — XP through Win8.1 — retain copies of old Windows Update files, even when those updates no longer serve a useful purpose. If your PC has been in use for several years, it’s likely that you’re carrying around multiple gigabytes’ worth of these unnecessary files! Delete them using the techniques described in the Jan. 9 LangaList Plus column, “Clean out obsolete, space-consuming update files” (paid content).
  • Uninstall unused apps. Streamline your system by removing old, unneeded, unused, or obsolete applications. It’s typically a simple, straightforward process — use Control Panel’s uninstall applet (e.g., Win7′s Programs and Features) or the uninstall tool that came with the no-longer-needed software.

Data Integrity:

  • Data integrity is all about backups — making sure that your data will be safe, no matter what.

    As most Windows Secrets readers know, there are three primary types of backups. Incremental backups (including Win8′s File History), copy only those files that have changed since the previous backup. These backups are typically fast and small. Full backups copy all targeted files, even if they’ve been archived in previous backups. Image backups capture everything on the disk; they are slow to create, but they can quickly restore a system to its exact condition when the image was created.

    Backups used to be a hassle, but automated tools now make them set-and-forget simple. There are many third-party backup tools available, but I recommend trying Windows’ built-in offerings first. After all, you’ve already paid for them!

    Previous Windows Secrets articles have all the information you’ll need about Microsoft’s backup systems:

    – Win7, Vista, XP backups and imaging: See the May 12, 2011, Top Story, “Build a complete Windows 7 safety net.”

    – Win8, 8.1 backups: See the July 11, 2013, Top Story, “Understanding Windows 8′s File History.”

    – Win8′s imaging: See the October 10, 2013, Top Story, “Creating customized recovery images for Win8.”

  • Verifying backups is a simple matter of opening your backup tool and making sure that the backup files and/or images are actually being created — in the correct location and on schedule.

Disk health:

  • Chkdsk, defrag, SMART: Windows’ built-in “Check Disk” (chkdsk.exe) and defragmentation (defrag) tools might be all you need to verify and maintain your disk’s basic health. (Note: Win8 calls its defragmenter “Optimize.”) In Win7 and 8, the built-in tools know how to recognize and correctly handle solid-state drives (SSDs). For more information and how-tos, see the Jan. 10, 2013, Top Story, “Let your PC start the new year right!”; skip down to the section titled “Check the hard drive’s physical/logical health.”

    Many defrag tools offer different levels of defragmentation, such as quick and full. Quick defrags take only minutes and resolve the worst instances of drive fragmentation; full defrags can take much longer, but they completely reorder your drive’s files for maximum efficiency.

    Most hard drives also collect highly detailed disk-health data via their built-in Self-monitoring, Analysis, and Reporting Technology (aka SMART) subsystem. To look for signs of impending drive trouble, you can use free software to retrieve and analyze this data. See the Sept. 6, 2012, LangaList Plus item, “Using and understanding SMART hard-drive tools.”

  • Verify free disk space: Windows needs elbow room to run well. When a hard drive has less than about 15–20 percent free space, Windows can slow down — and some operations such as defragmentation might not run at all.

    Periodically checking that you’re not running out of space is easy. In Windows/File Explorer, right-click on each drive in turn and select Properties. Note the graph and text detailing the amount of disk space used/available. If space is tight, try deleting files and uninstalling programs, use disk compression (see the Sept. 12, 2013, LangaList Plus item, “Two ways to solve a space crunch …”; paid content), or buy a larger drive. (For more info on gaining drive space, see the TechNet article, “Forty ways to free up disk space.”)

Physical system:

  • Clean and de-dust: Most PCs have fans that constantly draw in room air. Eventually, a PC’s cooling system can become choked with dust, leading to unsafe operating temperatures that can cause malfunctions and lead to premature system death. A complete PC maintenance routine includes physically cleaning out your PC from time to time. You’ll find cleaning information in the July 1, 2004, LangaList Plus article, “Right and wrong ways to de-dust a PC” (paid content), and in a Feb. 25, 2005, InformationWeek article, “Getting the grunge out of your PC,” that I wrote for another publication.
  • Check drivers, BIOS: Generally, you should replace system drivers and/or update the BIOS only if the system is experiencing some kind of hardware or driver trouble. The one exception is when a driver or BIOS update corrects a security vulnerability — then it’s worth installing. In those cases, visit your system or component maker’s website and see what drivers or BIOS is available for your system.
  • Check batteries: All PCs use some kind of battery, if only to run the clock when the system is powered off. Portable devices have larger batteries, and uninterruptible power supplies (UPSes) have still larger batteries. Whatever size, all batteries have a finite life — even rechargeables can withstand only so many recharge cycles.

    Check whatever batteries your devices use, and make sure they’re intact, corrosion-free, and not leaking or bulging. Try running your device entirely on battery power, if possible, to see how long a charge lasts; replace batteries if their power is inadequate for your needs. For more information, see the Jan. 21, 2010, LangaList Plus column, “Extend the life of your laptop’s battery” (paid content).

Maintenance helps only if you do it

This should be obvious, but it’s well worth repeating: once you have a maintenance schedule in hand, stick with it! Regular, routine maintenance doesn’t have to take long, and it can pay off in a big way with a PC that runs smoothly all year long!



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Fred Langa

About Fred Langa

Fred Langa is senior editor. His LangaList Newsletter merged with Windows Secrets on Nov. 16, 2006. Prior to that, Fred was editor of Byte Magazine (1987 to 1991) and editorial director of CMP Media (1991 to 1996), overseeing Windows Magazine and others.