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October 14, 2006

Be a Better Computer Caretaker

You spent good money on your PC. You might as well take good care of it, too.
By Oliver Rist for MSN Tech & Gadgets

Whether your machine is the $500 Sunday driver from Dell or multi-thousand dollar screamer, you have a vested interest in keeping it in top condition. Here's how the big guys do it.

Get your operating system on CD and create those recovery disks
Most Windows PCs are sold without giving you the Windows operating system on a disk-unless you request it, either from the manufacturer or Microsoft. Make the effort and get that disk, either by contacting Microsoft support after the sale or (considerably more convenient) making sure the seller gives it to you with the purchase.

Many PC-makers include a small "recovery disk" application that makes it even easier to reinstall a system. The difference between a Windows operating CD and a recovery CD is that the Windows CD simply reinstalls the operating system. That's it. A recovery CD is configured to reinstall not just Windows, but all the current hardware drivers in your system as well as specific custom applications. If your computer has a recovery disk app, use it. Typically the kick-off application to create the recovery CDs either comes up every now and then when you reboot the system or it's located off the Start >> Programs menu where it will be located under the heading of the manufacturer's name (Dell, Gateway, etc.).

Do a backup
I know, it's a yawner, but that doesn't mean it isn't necessary. Just go through one bad crash and you'll find out just how necessary backups are. Besides, creating them only takes a few mouse clicks and even fewer minutes. My favorite backup option for home computers is an external USB hard drive. They can go for about $200 for a 200GB version like the Maxtor OneTouch II. And because they're USB 2.0-compatible they simply plug into your XP machine and work. (The backup software is often embedded on the device so you may not even need to even install it; just access it straight off the hard disk.)

All you've got to do is follow the quick-start guide and choose the folders you want backed up. After that, the disk will take care of creating backups either on a schedule or whenever you press the backup button. It really doesn't get much more convenient than that.

"I do so much work on a notebook that goes everywhere with me," says Paul Lindo, a management exec and good friend. "With all the wear and tear on my notebook I crash them pretty often. Just being able to press a button the night before a trip and know I've got a full backup in case anything goes wrong is worth the price of the disk by itself. The fact that it's saved my bacon twice already is gravy."

Run your disk defragmenter

Like everything else, hard disks get sloppier the more they're used. Data becomes spread out over wider areas on the disk and accessing it gets slower and slower. You can buy third-party disk optimizers that work faster, but Windows includes its own that gets the job done. Just head over to Start >> All Programs >> Accessories >> System Tools and click Disk Defragmenter. When the program pops up, highlight the "C:" drive and hit Defragment. Then walk away because this will take a while. But the down time will be worth it in improved disk performance and reliability. I do this about once every three months.

Next: Uninterruptible power supply, don't plug in without one

Remember these three words: uninterruptible power supply
Don't plug your PC in without one. An uninterruptible power supply (or UPS) boils down to a surge suppressor with a battery. By storing a few minutes of power in a battery, a UPS allows you to shut down your PCs and peripherals in an orderly manner in the case of a power outage-instead of losing power suddenly, which tends to have a bad effect on delicate circuit boards. "Reboots, especially, sudden unexpected ones take a big toll on PC circuitry," says James Chang, a full-time desktop and systems administrator in New York City. As power consumption rises nationwide, so do blackouts and brownouts. Plugging your PC directly into the wall means many unnecessary reboots plus power spikes, and surges could damage the computer's long-term circuit life and even cause a fatal short. A UPS has a surge suppressor built-in to shield a PC from this kind of electronic havoc.

"I've seen PCs that were bought at the same time-from the same batch even-after two years with some plugged into UPSes and some just plugged into the wall," continues Chang. "The wall jobs were practically dead."

For home users, a UPS can cost between $40 and $150 depending on what features you want. Besides a battery, other whiz-bangs include surge protection for broadband modems (cable or DSL) and USB devices. UPS sometimes come with software that will do an orderly shutdown automatically if it senses the primary power has gone down. Me? I like the APC Back-UPS ES 725, which handles a lot of equipment (450-watt load; basically, two power strips worth of hardware into a single UPS) and also has broadband coverage. It sells for about $90 at CompUSA. Yes, it costs a bit more, but drop the Benjamin Franklin and smile. You're probably saving your PC at least a few months worth of extra life.

Don't cold reboot
A "cold" reboot refers to powering a PC all the way down so that it requires pushing the power key to get running again. This is bad for much the same reason as an unexpected reboot-it's tough on the circuitry. Cold reboots may be unavoidable, but that doesn't mean you should go looking for them. Set your PC to go into standby and subsequently hibernate mode after 30 minutes or more of inactivity by accessing the power options icon under the Windows XP Control Panel. To do this, go to Start >> Control Panel >> Power Options. There's a wizard screen here that lets you set individual power down thresholds with just a couple of mouse clicks. Some notebooks may have proprietary power management utilities that supersede the ones built into Windows, but they'll have similar wizard-style screens.

However, cold reboots are not bad for displays. Your monitor's overall life is actually increased by turning the thing off every night. So set let your PC sleep and your printer go into nap mode, but hit that power button on your monitor every night.

Watch the environment
No, that's not the Brazilian rainforest, it's the air around your PC. Computer cases have air vents, so dusty areas tend to fill your computer with that dust over time. That means it's a good idea to keep your work area as clean as possible.

Then open your PC once every couple of months and clean out the accumulated detritus. Buy a can of compressed air at any computer or electronics store-it only cost a couple of dollars-and gently blow the dust away with a few strategic gusts. Most home cases today have a couple of thumbscrews on the back that require no tools. Unscrew them and you can simply slide the case open, do your compressed air thing and slide it closed again. Keep the can at least six inches away from any circuitry. While you're at it, clean your keyboard and monitor with a few puffs. Stick with compressed air, as liquid is just as bad for your keyboard and display as for your motherboard.

For displays, you might try some of those eyeglass lens wipes you get at the optician; the kind that are pre-moisturized with glass cleaner. Don't do this too often, however, just once or twice a year. The rest of the time a few good compressed air puffs will do you nicely.

Take care of your peripherals
Most everyone uses optical mice these days, but if you're still using an old-fashioned mouse, a ball-actuated one, don't ignore that little sphere or its tiny sensors. Pop the bottom of the mouse open and swab both the ball and the sensors with rubbing alcohol applied with a Q-Tip.

Your disk drives also see a lot of use. Not much you can do for your hard disk aside from running a defragger, but your CD and DVD disk drives can be helped by investing in cleaning disc. They're usually less than $10 at most electronics stores, and they can improve your drives' overall life by up to 25 percent.

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