Let your PC start the new year right!

Fred Langa

A little time spent now on preventive maintenance can save hours of PC troubleshooting later — and provide better computing all year long.

Use the following steps to give your PC an annual checkup — and ensure it starts 2013 as healthy as possible.

Undo a year’s worth of wear and tear

Consider what your PC has been through in the past 12 months: Windows Update added dozens of patches to your operating system; you’ve likely installed some new third-party software, uninstalled other programs, and upgraded or patched apps and utilities; and you’ve probably altered, tuned, and tweaked various aspects of your system’s user interface and software settings. And you’ve undoubtedly created and deleted myriad new emails, documents, photos, MP3s, videos, spreadsheets, and such.

All during that time, your hard drive spun hundreds of millions of revolutions and the system fans rotated for hundreds of hours. Heat, dust, and chemical degradation did their inevitable damage, reducing the remaining physical life of your system’s components. In short, just as we’re a year older, our PCs are not the same machines they were a year ago.

To ensure your system runs smoothly for another year, now’s a good time to perform some extra maintenance. It’ll help prevent new errors from piling on old ones and keep your system fundamentally sound.

Preserve and protect system data — Take 1

As with all significant changes to a PC, start any serious system maintenance with a full system backup — if anything goes awry, you can recover quickly.

(An up-to-date backup is good insurance against all manner of ills that might bring down a PC: power spikes, hard-drive crashes, malware infestations, cockpit error, and many other calamities.)

All current versions of Windows provide the means to make reliable backups, though each new generation of the OS has added enhancements to its archiving capabilities. Here’s a quick list of resources:

XP: For the best information on XP’s serviceable backup tools (plus other essential maintenance tips, techniques, and free utilities), look up the Aug. 12, 2010, Top Story, “Preparing Windows XP for the long haul,” and the Nov. 11, 2010, Top Story, “Windows XP: Looking back, looking forward.”

Vista: Check out Microsoft’s Vista backup/restore FAQ or the Vista “Back up your files” page. Many of the techniques cited in the May 12, 2011, Top Story, “Build a complete Windows 7 safety net,” also apply to Vista.

Windows 7: The “Build a complete Windows 7 safety net” story walks you through the entire process of setting up and using Win7’s built-in backup tools, providing near-total data safety. (See Figure 1.)

Win7 backup options

Figure 1. Take advantage of whatever backup options your Windows version provides. Win7's (shown) are especially robust.

Windows 8: Microsoft’s latest OS tries to be all-things-new, so instead of backup, it calls its archiving system File History. Microsoft provides a Win8-specific how-to (including a video demonstration) on its “How to use File History” page.

Check the hard drive’s physical/logical health

Traditional hard drives are possibly the hardest-working components in PCs. Their spinning platters can rack up hundreds of millions of rotations per year, and their read/write heads chatter back and forth millions of times, moving chunks of files in astronomical quantities.

It’s a testament to hard-drive technology that they work as well, as long, and as reliably as they do. But as sure as death and taxes, all drives eventually wear out.

Take a few minutes to check your drive’s physical health via the Self-Monitoring, Analysis, and Reporting Technology (aka SMART) subsystem built into most current hard drives. Free software can help you do so; see the Sept. 6, 2012, LangaList Plus item, “Using and understanding SMART hard-drive tools.”

Although SMART tools monitor the physical health of drives, Windows’ built-in tools check on the logical health of the files on the drive.

Every version of Windows, from XP on, has chkdsk (as in “check disk”) for exactly that purpose. The basic version of chkdsk is a simple point-and-click operation. In Windows Explorer, right-click the drive that you want to check and select Properties. Click the Tools tab and then, under Error-checking, click the Check now button (shown in Figure 2).

Drive-check tool

Figure 2. All versions of Windows allow for easy, basic, disk error checking, via Windows' drive properties dialog box.

Check now works for routine maintenance, but there’s a much more powerful alternative — chkdsk.exe — that’s accessed from a command line and that offers many more options for advanced users. (See Figure 3.)

Chkdsk options

Figure 3. The command line–based chkdsk is more powerful than the one-click version in Properties.

Chkdsk’s command-line options vary significantly from Windows to Windows, but chkdsk c: /f works in all versions for basic error correction of the C: drive. (Change the drive letter to check and correct other drives.)

To see the version-specific chkdsk commands available in your copy of Windows, open an administrator-level command window (right-click Command Prompt and select Run as administrator). Type chkdsk /? and press Enter. You’ll see a complete list of all available chkdsk options.

Patch and update all software and the OS

Now that your hard drives are checked and (I presume) healthy, build on that foundation by making sure all software updates are installed — especially security-related patches! Start by opening Windows Update and clicking Check for updates; then review the list of patches Microsoft wants installed. (Not all Windows patches are necessary or problem-free. Susan Bradley’s Patch Watch column provides a list of potentially problematic updates.)

If you need help with Windows Update, Microsoft has more info for XP, Vista/Win7, and Win8.

With Windows fully up to date, it’s time to check your other software. Although most applications let you check for updates manually (via menu options such as Help, Help/About, or Help/Update), it’s easier to use a general-purpose updating app or service such as those discussed in the July 26, 2012, Top Story, “Software that updates your other software.”

While you’re checking your software, look for programs you haven’t used for a while. Removing applications that no longer serve any useful purpose can help make your system leaner and cleaner — and easier to troubleshoot if the need arises.

Do a thorough review of your PC’s defenses

Passwords: As PCs have become more powerful, passwords that were once virtually uncrackable might now fall to various free, easily used, and surprisingly fast hacker tools. Verify that your most important passwords are still secure by testing them (or a variant of them) on any of the many good password-checking sites, such as:

If you need to upgrade your passwords, see “How to build better passwords,” an article I wrote for another publication some time ago. (The information is still current.)

Firewall: Put your firewall through its paces to ensure that your PC is not visible or potentially accessible to Internet-based hackers. The following sites offer free, easy-to-use, firewall-testing tools and services.

  • HackerWatch Probe
  • SecurityMetrics’ Port Scan
  • Gibson Research Corporation’s ShieldsUP

    Figure 4 shows some of what you might see after running ShieldsUP.

    Shields Up report

    Figure 4. This partial output of ShieldsUP firewall tests shows the tested PC is invisible and inaccessible to Internet snoops and hackers.

Antivirus: Verify that your system is free of worms, viruses, Trojans, and other malware by running a full scan with a standalone security tool such as ESET’s Online Scanner (site), Microsoft’s Safety Scanner (site), or Trend Micro’s HouseCall (site).

Wi-Fi Router: Many current Wi-Fi routers contain a flaw in their implementation of Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS). Hackers might easily breach your Wi-Fi defenses, regardless of what encryption and password you use. To see whether your router is affected — and what to do if it is — check out the Dec. 13, 2012, Top Story, “Routers using WPS are intrinsically unsafe,” and the Dec. 20, 2012, follow-up story, “Putting Wi-Fi router’s security to the test.”

Take out all the trash accumulated in Windows

Windows is something of a packrat (as are most PC users when it comes to their systems); it can accumulate truly astounding amounts of digital debris, including temporary files that sometimes become all too permanent.

Fortunately, there are many excellent disk-cleanup tools available. Windows’ own cleanmgr is one — if you know how to access its hidden settings. They’re documented in an April 4, 2002, article, “Sageset unlocks CleanMgr’s power.” The how-to instructions in that ancient story still work perfectly in all current Windows versions — including Win8!

Some third-party cleanup tools can do even more, as explained in the Nov. 10, 2011, Top Story, “Putting Registry-/system-cleanup apps to the test.”

Defrag (or optimize) data on hard disks

A major hard-drive cleanup often results in fragmentation — files and pieces of files scattered across the hard drive that can waste drive space. Defragmenting can improve drive performance on all spinning-platter drives, but it’s not needed (or wanted) on solid-state drives.

Microsoft has online instructions for using the Windows disk defragmenter tool in XP, Vista, and Win7. Win8 takes a somewhat different approach: instead of a simple disk-defragmenter tool, Win8 has Optimize Drives (see Figure 5), which adds automated SSD support.

Win8 drive optimization

Figure 5. Windows 8's version of hard-drive defragging tools.

The changes in Optimize Drive are explained in a Microsoft TechNet discussion; a Win8 support page gives more how-to information.

Preserve and protect your data — Take 2

Once your system is updated, cleaned, defragged, and otherwise optimized, make a new full backup or system image to preserve your new setup. This way, if anything goes wrong in the coming months, you’ll be able to return your PC to its fully cleaned and optimized condition in just a few clicks.

See Preserve and protect, Part 1, at the top of this article, for links and more info.

Dust you must, for a truly clean PC

We think of our PCs as electronic devices — and they are — but they’re also mechanical systems. Most PCs have cooling fans that constantly draw in room air. Over time, the inside of your PC can become astonishingly choked with dust, resulting in poor air flow, higher temperatures, and shorter component life.

The Oct. 13, 2011, Top Story, “Take your PC’s temperature — for free!,” shows how to check whether your PC is running warmer than it should — and how to clean it, if it is.

There’s additional cleaning information in the July 1, 2004, article, “Right and wrong ways to de-dust a PC,” and in a 2005 article, “Getting the grunge out of your PC,” that I wrote for another publication.

You’re now ready for another year of computing

Congratulations! Your PC should now be good to go for the new year. Here’s hoping 2013 is free from bugs, crashes, and other PC misfortunes.

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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.