Thursday, May 24, 2012

Have You Started Your Spring Cleaning?

The birds are chirping, the plants are budding, and the sun is shining. It's spring cleaning time. Everybody is familiar with the yearly tradition of opening the windows to air out the house and finally getting started on that garage. What many people don't realize is that this is also an excellent time to perform maintenance on your computers as well. People tend to be inside, on their computers, more during the cold winter months. There is also more dust blowing around due to the decreased humidity in the winter. This is the time of year your system is most in need of a cleaning, both to Windows and the physical computer itself.
The first step to a good spring cleaning is to remove unnecessary temporary files. As you perform daily tasks, your system accumulates temp files. These can range from automatic backups of documents you're working on to saved images from websites you've visited. Many people don't realize that even though these files are called temporary files, Windows will store them indefinitely unless you clean them out. Some of these files serve a purpose, for example a website that you visit often will load faster because all of the pictures have already been downloaded and stored in temp files for easy access. On the other hand, many activities automatically check the temp files before taking any other action. This means that if you allow your temp files to accumulate it will take longer for your machine to boot up, print and load some programs. There are utilities that will do intelligent scans to determine which temp files are likely to be reused and which are safe to delete.
The next step is to remove unnecessary startup programs. Every program that you have running takes up system resources, causing the entire system to slow down. These days, many vendors will automatically set their programs to start running in the background during your system's boot sequence. Some of these programs you want to have running all the time, such as an anti-virus that provides real-time protection. However, there are many programs that probably aren't used every time you use your computer. Larger programs will load “helpers”, which are smaller programs that constantly run and help larger programs open more quickly when you choose to use them. Some examples of this are GPS and camera companies that run programs that allow you to access your devices quickly when you plug them in to a USB port. If you're on your computer daily, but only plug your camera in once a month you are probably better off waiting a couple of extra seconds to access your pictures rather than having your system's performance be sluggish every time you log on. You have to be very careful when removing programs from the automatic startup list, as removing the wrong programs can cause your system to become unstable or even prevent Windows from booting up properly. We recommend that you research each program if you're unsure of what it does. It's always safer to leave a program on the list until you can consult with an expert if you're unable to determine whether or not it's safe to remove.
The next thing to do is to check for updates to both your anti-malware programs and Windows. Any reputable malware/virus protection program will publish regular updates to their virus definitions. These are to protect you from newly discovered threats. Most programs that perform real-time protection will update at least once a day, sometimes multiple times a day. If you aren't up to date you aren't protected, it's that simple. Additionally, software providers are constantly looking for ways that their programs might be compromised in order to allow hackers to gain access to your system. When they find holes in their security they will release updates to patch these holes. Adobe, Java and Windows are the most commonly patched programs. If these updates are not performed you are running the risk of leaving yourself vulnerable. Most programs will offer a feature to either check for available updates or allow you to see when the last update was applied. While these updates should be happening automatically, it is good practice to periodically check to ensure that you are protected.
The final digital maintenance to perform is to defragment your hard drives. Let's imagine your hard drive as a library. Instead of using the Dewey Decimal System to organize books, this library simply fills the shelves from front to back. As books are checked out, they leave gaps in the shelves which are filled by other books that are being returned. If a gap isn't wide enough to hold a particularly large book, the librarian simply moves on to the next gap that is large enough, that way she doesn't have to constantly be shifting the books back and forth in order to make everything fit. This is essentially how hard drives are utilized by Windows. The problem comes in when you get volumes that take up multiple books. Let's imagine that our library contains a copy of Encyclopedia Britannica. When the encyclopedia is first acquired it is placed in alphabetical order on the shelf. Let's imagine that somebody takes the M book off of the shelf and checks it out. Later that day, a librarian sees that large gap and fills it with another book. When the M gets returned it no longer has a home and is placed on a different shelf. This process is repeated hundreds and thousands of times until the books are randomly scattered throughout the library. This is called fragmentation. Now let's imagine that you are researching a topic and take the time to scour the library and find that M volume. You sit down and look up your topic, only to find that the volume in front of you refers you to another book in the encyclopedia. Your search starts all over again. It would not take you long to decide that this is not a very efficient way to perform your research. Likewise, when your computer is searching for data a fragmented hard drive can slow the process considerably. This will cause programs to load more slowly and Windows to take longer to boot. When you defragment your hard drive you are essentially reorganizing the books in that library, putting all of the books in the encyclopedia together again so that they are easily and quickly found.
Once you've finished with your system maintenance, it's time to shut down the computer and open the case. The first thing that we want to do is to clean out any dust that's accumulated. Dust can cause two problems for your computer. It can lay across electrical circuits and cause shorts, which can damage or destroy your hardware. It also naturally gathers in areas of high airflow. Your system needs airflow in order to keep itself cool. Dust will clog filters and block fans to the point where your system has to work harder to keep itself cool, or run hotter than it's designed to. Either of these scenarios will significantly shorten the life of your system. Once the system is cleaned out check your hardware for loose connections and make sure that everything appears to be functioning properly.
Preventative maintenance is often overlooked when people are considering the performance of their computers. Many times people are looking to purchase a new system without realizing that with proper maintenance their current system can perform all of the tasks that they require. Hopefully, we've given you some tools to ensure that you can keep your systems running efficiently for years to come.

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