The Windows Maintenance Challenge: Part 1

Fred Langa

Can commercial software maintain your PC better than Windows’ built-in and free tools?

This article is the first in a series that will help you determine which tools — free or paid — yield the best results on your specific PC.

Personal-computer salvation? Or snake oil?

You’ve undoubtedly seen the ads; they state something similar to: “This software is guaranteed to make your PC run like new! Download it for free!”

The ads often promise a fix for every PC affliction: “It’s the only software that instantly speeds up your PC, prevents crashes, fixes system errors, boots Windows faster, deletes malware and junk files …” and so on, and so on.

For many PC users, that sounds great. Simply click a button and everything gets magically fixed. That’s certainly easier than trying to use all those tools already built into Windows — or the myriad of specialized, third-party maintenance tools.

But in truth, there never has been one application that fixes all Windows problems — and it’s doubtful there ever will be. Windows is simply too complex, and the range of PC configurations is virtually infinite. A suite of tools might do the trick, but then there’s the question of free versus paid.

Windows has built-in tools for nearly any problem — and they, along with many third-party tools, are completely free. Most of the do-it-all maintenance applications are paid. (These commercial products often offer a free scan; but to fix any system errors they might find, you have to accept a paid subscription.)

Naturally, you’d assume that commercial maintenance tools offer significantly better and easier troubleshooting than do Windows’ free tools. But do they? Clearly, this question calls for a test.

Using a relatively simple before/after comparison

In outline form, the test plan for this series of articles is simple:

  • Take a mainstream, real-life PC and get it running as well as possible, using only Windows’ built-in maintenance tools and conventional maintenance techniques.
  • Once the test PC is thoroughly cleaned, measure maintenance-related variables such as startup/shutdown speed, free disk space, number of reported Windows errors, and so forth.
  • Make a system image of the now clean, baseline setup.
  • One by one, run several full-blown, commercial maintenance tools on a freshly restored system image of the baseline PC. That’ll give each commercial tool exactly the same starting conditions.
  • Note what each commercial tool finds, and see whether it improved the system’s overall performance. Also note any nonquantifiable, subjective elements of each tool’s operation.

The results will then show whether the commercial maintenance tools can improve the test PC beyond what Windows’ built-in and free tools can do.

A comparison of techniques, not products

At this point, you might think this article is a standard software review. But it’s emphatically not!

There are numerous reviews of commercial PC-maintenance products on the Web. But the results of those reviews all have an important shortcoming: they apply only to the machine used to test the software. No matter which PC configuration I chose for maintenance tests, it wouldn’t be exactly like yours. In fact, it might not even be close.

Ultimately, the purpose of this Maintenance Challenge is not to find the best maintenance tool for the test PC. The goal is to help you find the tool or tools that work best with your specific combination of hardware, software, skills, and personal preferences.

To that end, these articles have an optional hands-on component that lets you work along with me. It’ll let you safely produce your own custom test results.

For example, in this article I’ll discuss how I used Windows’ built-in maintenance tools to create a clean test system that’s lean, secure, and stable. (Links to previous Windows Secrets articles will tell you how to properly use the tools.)

If you wish, you can go hands-on, giving your PC the same thorough tune-up I gave the test PC. (You can do it even as you read this article.) Or you can simply read the articles, using my results as a general guide to free and commercial maintenance tools and techniques.

That said, if you do choose the hands-on option for this article — and I hope you will — your PC will almost surely end up leaner, cleaner, more secure, and closer to error-free than it is now. That’s a worthy goal in itself!

Follow the Maintenance Challenge through to its conclusion, and you should have a set of custom test results that apply to your PC. You’ll definitively know whether free or commercial maintenance tools are the right fit for your unique mix of hardware, software, skill level, and personal preferences.

Let’s get started!

Building the base system with a thorough tune-up

To clean the test PC, I used — and I suggest you use — the maintenance tools and techniques discussed in two Windows Secrets articles: the Jan. 10, 2013, Top Story, “Let your PC start the new year right!,” and the Jan. 16 Top Story “Keep a healthy PC: A routine-maintenance guide.”

A complete PC-maintenance process is laid out in those articles, along with numerous links you can follow for additional how-to information. The tools and techniques discussed work on all current Windows versions. Most even work on XP!

Allow some time for the tune-up. Depending on when and how much maintenance you’ve previously done on your system, the complete process can take anywhere from a few minutes to several hours. (Some tasks, such as defragging and malware-scanning, will take some time to complete, but you don’t have to stay at your PC.)

Once all the maintenance tasks are completed, we’re ready to establish some baseline measurements.

Quantifying the maintenance results

When comparing most things, it’s almost always useful to have some measurements that are objective and repeatable. Numbers might not tell the whole story, but they can tell a very important part of it.

For example, the main reason to remove junk files is to increase disk space — and the best measurement for junk-file removal is whether you have more space and how much. Likewise, the only way to know whether a maintenance tool has improved startup and shutdown times is to time them.

For this series, I took my initial, baseline measurements immediately after completing the test-system’s tune-up. Most of the recommended measurements are a cinch to do and take only a few minutes.

Here’s what I measured, and how you can perform the same measurements:

Disk usage: To determine exactly how much disk space your setup is using, in Windows/File Explorer, right-click the drive of interest (typically, C:) and select Properties. In the Properties dialog box, record the numbers following Used space and Free space. You can copy them to a Notepad file, but it’ll be safer (and give slightly more accurate test results) to put them on paper.

You also can get a count of the number of files and folders on your drive. Click the C:\ folder and group-select (select all; CTRL + A) its contents. Right-click on the selected items and select Properties. Properties will list the total number of files and folders in the selection. (You’ll notice that the total size of the files in this files-and-folders Properties box is different from that given by the overall disk size Properties mentioned above. That’s because the files-and-folder size count skips some hidden files and folders plus files the user doesn’t have permission to access. In contrast, the overall disk-space count includes everything. I prefer to use the overall disk-space count, but you are free to use either. Just stick with one or the other.)

Registry size: Some commercial tools claim to not just correct Registry errors but also shrink (compress) the Registry for greater speed. You can quantify the size of your Registry by locating all Registry-related files (NTUSER.dat and so forth) and adding up their sizes. You also can open regedit.exe and export (File/Export) the full, expanded contents of the Registry. Use the .reg file as another basis for comparison.

Operating system file integrity: To make sure all operating system files are valid and uncorrupted, run Windows’ built-in System File Checker (sfc.exe; more info). Let the tool, shown in Figure 1, try to correct any problems it uncovers.

System File Checker

Figure 1. Windows' built-in System File Checker can verify the integrity of all operating-system files; and attempt to correct problems. (Shown: A clean bill of health.)

Rerun sfc.exe (ideally, several times if it doesn’t give a clean bill of health) and then record the final number of OS integrity violations that remain uncorrected. There should be none, but record whatever final number you’re given.

System stability and other errors: Windows’ built-in Reliability Monitor (Figure 2) tracks and displays information on every crash, hang, and hiccup generated by Windows and installed applications.

Reliability Monitor

Figure 2. Windows' built-in Reliability Monitor records the what/where/when of system errors. Here, it documents an Internet Explorer crash.

Many reported “errors” are actually minor, transient events that require no remediation. But if you find serious trouble — it’s a judgment call — Reliability Monitor’s Action column and Check for solution option might provide solutions.

When you’re done, make note of how many significant, unremediated errors remain — ideally, there should be none.

To access Reliability Monitor:

  • Win7/8: Open Control Panel in Category view. Under System and Security, click Review your computer’s status and then click Maintenance. Next, under Check for solutions to problem reports, click View reliability history.
  • Vista: Click Start, type “perfmon” into the search box, and then press Enter. In the Reliability and Performance Monitor window’s left-hand navigation pane, click down through Reliability and Performance/Monitoring Tools/Reliability Monitor.

For more information on using Reliability Monitor:

  • “How to use Reliability Monitor” – Microsoft Windows article
  • “Using Reliability Monitor” – TechNet article
  • “Use Reliability Monitor to troubleshoot” – TechNet article

Startup/shutdown speed: It takes a few steps to quantify startup/shutdown performance, but it isn’t hard. In fact, all you need is anything that measures seconds.

For startup, carefully time how long your system takes to go from power-on to a stable desktop. Don’t run any applications; immediately measure shutdown time by starting the clock when you click Shut down and stopping the clock at lights-out.

That method works, but I prefer to remove the effects of human reflexes from the results. Instead, I used two very simple batch files to automatically record precise start and stop times.

If you’d like to try automatic start/stop timing, here’s how to create the batch files:

  • Open Notepad and enter (or copy/paste) the following two lines:

    echo Restart began at %time% >> “C:\Users\{username}\Desktop\timelog.txt”

    shutdown -f -r -t 00

  • Replace {username} with your Windows sign-in. For example, my path would be: C:\Users\Fred\Desktop\timelog.txt. Save the file to the desktop and name it timedrestart.bat.
  • Now create the second batch file. Open Notepad again and enter (copy/paste) the following two lines:

    echo Restart ended at %time% >> “C:\Users\{username}\Desktop\timelog.txt”

    exit

  • Again, replace {username} with your own Windows user name.
  • Name this second file bootdone.bat and save it to your PC’s Startup folder, typically located in the following path. (Again, do not put the first batch file — timedrestart.bat — in the start folder.)

    C:\Users\{username}\AppData\Roaming\Microsoft\Windows\Start Menu\Programs\Startup

    For the final time, replace {username} with your own. (You might have to unhide Windows’ hidden files to see AppData.)

In practice, here’s how you’d use the files. Note: This assumes you’re not using a Windows sign-in password (more on that below).

With your system freshly maintained, fully booted, operating normally, and with no other software running, click timedrestart.bat in Windows/File Explorer. That file will write the current time to a timelog.txt file on your desktop and then trigger an immediate forced warm restart.

When the reboot completes, bootdone.bat (in the Startup folder) will automatically record the finish time in the same timelog.txt file.

Your resulting timelog.txt file will contain pairs of lines, like these:

Restart began at 18:39:48.70

Restart ended at 18:41:17.67

Doing a little math (or using a tool such as the free online Time Calculator) will quickly reveal the exact amount of time this full shutdown/restart cycle took. For example, in the above example, the time is 1 minute and 29 seconds (rounded to the nearest second).

Whether you’re using the manual or automatic timing methods, you should perform several full restart cycles, back to back. Average and save the results with the other metrics you’re gathering.

Note: For maximum accuracy, ensure that no unnecessary external factors interfere with the boot process. For example, I temporarily configured my test PC (a Win7 box) to automatically sign in to Windows, avoiding the usual sign-in pause during the reboot process (more info). I also made sure there was nothing in the optical drive and that no USB drives were plugged in.

Other items: If there are other maintenance tasks or optimizations that you wish to perform, now’s the time. Likewise, make note of any additional maintenance metrics that are important to you.

A clean, secure, error-free base system

To review: Based on all the major maintenance tasks referenced above, here’s what’s been done so far:

  • Pre-maintenance system image/backup made
  • Junk/temp files cleaned
  • Registry cleaned
  • System scanned and verified as malware-free
  • Firewall operation verified
  • Drives checked for logical errors and any errors corrected
  • Drives defragged
  • Operating system and browser(s) fully updated
  • Other software fully updated with all relevant security patches
  • BIOS and drivers updated, if necessary
  • Operating System files’ integrity verified
  • System errors checked; significant errors remediated
  • Post-maintenance system image/backup made
  • Baseline maintenance metrics recorded and saved, off-system

It’s an impressive list, and you might be perfectly happy with the way your system is right now. If so, great!

But maybe you’d get even better results from a different tool. Next week, I’ll show you what happens when I ran several different commercial maintenance tools on the same PC setup; you’ll see which tools — commercial or free — did a better job.

And again: If you choose the hands-on option, you’ll produce customized test results that are specific to your own unique mix of hardware, software, skill level, and preference.

You’ll know, definitively, whether free or commercial maintenance tools are the best fit for you!

Stay tuned!



Get our unique weekly Newsletter with tips and techniques, how to's and critical updates on Windows 7, Windows 8, Windows XP, Firefox, Internet Explorer, Google, etc. Join our 480,000 subscribers!

PC Drive Maintenance (Excerpt)

Subscribe and get our monthly bonuses - free!

Your hard drives store photos, books, music and film libraries, letters, financial documents and so on. This ebook is aimed at helping you understand your hard drives, expand their capacities and length of life, and recover what you can from them when they fail. We're offering you a FREE Excerpt! Get this excerpt and other 4 bonuses if you subscribe FREE now!

= Paid content

All Windows Secrets articles posted on 2014-08-14:

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.