Get your PC running like new with these easy tips for clearing the crud out of Windows, applications, and hardware.
Tuesday, November 22, 2005; 10:40 AM
You're not imagining things: It is indeed taking you longer to load Windows, browse the Web, and run your applications. It's as if your car took longer to get you to work as it got older. You wouldn't stand for such diminishing performance from your automobile, so why abide PC slowdowns?
Unless you built it yourself, your PC began picking up unwanted junk long before you first connected to the Internet. The people who made that shiny new PC loaded it with useless, bandwidth-clogging software at the start. And it only gets worse as you install programs, whether via download or off a disc.
The following tips will help you scrape the crud out of Windows and your applications to get your PC runningbetterthan it did when it was new. And " Optimize Your Notebook " will show you how to wipe out power-draining settings in your portable. Of course, stray software isn't the only thing that clutters your computer life; actual dust, dirt, and debris can create problems too.Answer Lineguru Lincoln Spector offers advice for removing the physical gunk from your PC's dirtiest hardware components.
Windows picks up lint like my aunt's wool sweater. But before you clean up, scan your system for viruses, spyware, and other interlopers. Then remove the Windows components and applications you don't need. And finally, make sure you have the tools and settings in place to keep digital detritus from reinsinuating itself into your PC.
Start by visiting the Windows Update site to make sure you have the latest patches for your version of the OS. Next, check your antivirus and antispyware utilities for updates, and then run a complete check of your system with each tool. (Be sure to read about our favorite freebies in each category.) Once the scans come up clean, disconnect from the Internet and any local networks you might be on, and shut down each of the utilities' autoprotect features. This will make it easier to spot the CPU-cycle robbers on your system.
Wave bye-bye to the programs you don't use by clicking this button in their listing in Windows' Add or Remove Programs applet. Many of the programs that came preinstalled on your computer automatically launch "helper" programs when Windows starts, often doing little more than adding to the flurry of applets swirling around in the Windows atmosphere.
First, jettison unneeded Windows components. In XP, clickStart, Control Panel, Add or Remove Programs, and chooseAdd/Remove Windows Componentsin the left pane. (The steps are similar in older versions of the operating system.) Two prime candidates for deletion are Games (clickAccessories and Utilities, Details, Games, Details, and uncheck those you don't want) and MSN Explorer (simply uncheck it and step through the wizard). When you're done, clickNextandFinish.
You can remove well-behaved applications by using Control Panel's Add or Remove Programs applet, but if the program has its own undelete option (likely on its submenu in All Programs), use that. If the program still appears in Add or Remove Programs after you do so, or if it doesn't have its own undelete function, select it in the list of 'Currently installed programs', clickRemoveorChange/Remove, and follow the instructions. Some security programs have only a 'Change' option, requiring removal by their own uninstall component.
ClickShow updatesat the top of this window to see the various Windows and Office patches that have been added to your system. If you delete a Windows or Office patch here, however, Windows concludes that you want to undo the patch, rather than just remove the files. Rolling back patches is risky. If you want to get rid of the backup files, read Lincoln Spector's Answer Line column from March 2005 to learn about a safe approach.
Sometimes programs remain in the Add or Remove Programs list after they have been uninstalled. Others insist on running components even after they've been removed, and icons for some "removed" programs may continue to appear in your system tray (next to the clock), the Ghosts of Applications Past.
When you encounter such a spectral program, click itsRemoveorChange/Removebutton again. Windows XP with Service Pack 2 may recognize your second try as an attempt to remove the entry from the Add or Remove Programs list, and fix the problem automatically. If that doesn't work, shift Windows into Safe Mode: Restart your computer, hold down theF8key, and chooseSafe Mode. Use theRemove/Changeoption in Add or Remove Programs once again. If that doesn't work either, haul out the heavy artillery. While you can manually remove stuck entries by editing the Registry , Microsoft has a much more thorough--and less dangerous--option called the Windows Installer Cleanup Utility. Download your free copy of this tool.
Startup Control Panel lets you turn off your autostart programs. Once you've deleted all the programs you can live without, look for cycle-stealing apps that run unnecessarily in the background on your system. The majority of self-starting Windows processes, inscrutable though they may be, serve vital roles. For example, if you pressCtrl-Alt-Delto bring up the Windows Task Manager, you may see ten copies of the file svchost.exe among your processes. Don't worry. Svchost.exe is a wrapper--a program that runs other programs--and having half a dozen running all the time is common. If you read somewhere that Windows runs blazingly fast if you just disable one of these Windows services, be skeptical, and think twice before you stop any Windows service without knowing for sure that you don't need it. For more on identifying Windows processes, read Andrew Brandt's Security Tips column from last July.
Mike Lin's free Startup Control Panel lists all the programs that start automatically on your PC (except the really sneaky ones). After you download and install the utility, clickStart, Control Panel, Startup, and choose one of the Startup tabs. Uncheck the box next to an unwanted program to prevent it from launching when Windows starts. Disabled programs appear on the Deleted tab, so you can bring them back easily if you determine that you need them.
Always restart your machine after you've used Startup Control Panel to make any changes to your Windows settings.
Free up hard-drive space by reducing the amount of storage reserved by Windows' System Restore. Having plenty of empty space on your hard drive is important for good Windows performance, as it allows room for virtual memory (be sure to learn more about tweaking Windows' memory settings ). Fortunately, clearing space on a drive is usually pretty easy. For example, few people need anywhere near the hard-disk space that Windows sets aside for the Recycle Bin--the default is 10 percent of the drive's total capacity. That's 3GB of a 30GB hard drive. To make some room, right-click theRecycle Bin, chooseProperties, swing the slider down to 3 percent or less, and clickOK. That would still give you almost a gigabyte to temporarily store deleted files on our example 30GB hard drive, which should be plenty under most circumstances.
Another storage profligate is Windows' System Restore, which uses a ton of hard-drive space to hold restore points that you will never need. To trim them, right-clickMy Computer, chooseProperties, System Restore, drag the slider down to 3 percent or less, and clickOK. That should be sufficient for at least two restore points on our example 30GB drive.
Now you should run Windows' Disk Cleanup: ClickStart, Run, type , and pressEnter. Check each type of file you want to look for (I check them all), and clickOK. Right-click the C: drive in My Computer and chooseProperties, Disk Cleanup. You'll see a list of a dozen or so kinds of files that you can delete. Check the categories you don't need, clickOK, and then clickYes.
You may want to leave some entries unchecked, however. The contents of your Temporary Internet Files folder, for example, can help speed up Internet Explorer by reducing the amount of data you have to download to view Web pages that you return to frequently (see " Shake Out Internet Explorer " for more). Also, if you delete your Office Setup files, some Office 2003 updates may not function properly (see AskWoody.com for information about Microsoft's fix for the Office 2003 SP2 installer).
Once you've emptied the trash, restart your computer, right-click your C: drive in My Computer, and chooseProperties, Tools, Defragment Now. In the Disk Defragmenter dialog box, clickAnalyze. If the Analyzer reports that you need to defrag the drive, wait until you can afford to leave your computer alone for a few hours before proceeding. In fact, there is some disagreement as to whether defragging actually improves your system's performance. The consensus at present, however, is that defragging your hard drive periodically does indeed result in faster data accesses.
You could spend the next ten years fiddling with Registry keys, cache parameters, menu delay settings, and a thousand other minute Windows details. Or you can take advantage of the years of work that other folks have devoted to the cause of achieving a more shipshape Windows. Two of my favorites are Macecraft's $30 jv16 PowerTools and the Registry scanner in Iolo Technologies' $50 System Mechanic utility suite. Both programs make it easy to clear the crud from your Registry. (Note: The Registry is a terrible thing to muck up, so avoid no-name Registry cleaners like the plague.)
Now that Windows is spiffy, keep it that way by creating a limited account for anyone who uses the machine but whom you can't trust to download with discretion. Log on as an administrator and clickStart, Control Panel, User Accounts, Create a new account. (If you don't see this option, your network administrator may have restricted your system.) Enter a name for the account, clickNext, chooseLimitedunder 'Pick an account type', and selectCreate Account. To give this account a log-in password, click it in the list of accounts, chooseCreate a password, type the password twice, enter a password hint (if you desire), and clickCreate Password. Close the User Accounts dialog box when you're done.
Sooner or later, every application accumulates gunk--whether useless files, obsolete add-ons, or intrusive settings that clog the works or just get in the way. Scraping the barnacles off programs needn't be a chore, however.
Microsoft Word behaves like a pack rat. Not only will cleaning house free disk space, but it will also help you avoid problems.
Whenever Word crashes, it leaves interim files with names like 'DFC15F8.TMP' on your hard drive. Running Windows' Disk Cleanup will sweep away most of these files (see " Whip Disks Into Shape "), but you can also delete them en masse. Begin by closing all running programs. Then clickStart, Search, chooseAll files and folders(if necessary), enter in the box labeled 'All or part of a file name', selectLocal Hard Drives (C:)under 'Look in', and clickSearch. When the search is complete, pressCtrl-Ato select all the files, and then pressDelete.
By default, Word saves AutoRecover copies of open files every 10 minutes. As Word recovers from a crash, it offers to retrieve the files that you had open at the fateful moment. Sometimes AutoRecover files remain on your hard drive long after they're needed--representing a potential security risk. To make sure all your old AutoRecover files bite the dust, open Word and clickTools, Options, File Locations. Double-clickAutoRecover files, right-click the resulting folder (it's probably named '\Word\STARTUP'), and chooseExplore. Click the up arrow to move to the parent directory, and delete all files with names that end in '.asd'.
Obsolete add-ins can slow Word to a crawl. To get rid of them, clickTools, Templates and Add-Ins, and look for the interlopers listed under 'Global templates and add-ins'. Select the ones you no longer need and clickRemove. If the Remove button is grayed out, close Word and open your Word Startup folder (you'll probably find it at C:\Documents and Settings\username\Application Data\Microsoft\Word\Startup, whereusernameis your log-on ID). Change the name of each unwanted file so that it doesn't end in '.dot' (rename 'oldmacros.dot', for example, as 'oldmacros.dot.save'); when you restart Word, all of the unneeded add-ons will be gone.
Speed up Outlook by archiving your .pst file from the date of your choice. One good thing about Microsoft's Outlook e-mail and contact manager is that the program stores everything in a single giant .pst file. The bad thing about Outlook is that this file is nearly impenetrable and tremendously difficult to clean out.
Outlook 2003's .pst files are more reliable than their counterparts in Outlook 97, 2000, and 2002 (visit Microsoft Help and Support for more on this subject). If you upgraded to Outlook 2003 from an earlier version, you may still be using the old .pst file. Updating to the Outlook 2003 format can save you loads of misery. Unfortunately, doing so takes time.
To determine which type of .pst file your copy of Outlook 2003 is using, right-clickPersonal Foldersin the left pane under All Mail Folders, chooseProperties for "Personal Folders", and clickAdvanced. If the Format box says 'Personal Folders File (97-2002)', you have the old version. To convert it, close Outlook and navigate to your outlook.pst or mailbox.pst file. It's probably at C:\Documents and Settings\username\Local Settings\Application Data\Microsoft\Outlook (or a variation of this file path), whereusernameis your log-on name.
If it's not there, open Outlook and clickFile, Data File Management. A box lists your Archive and Personal Data Folders. ClickSettingsto see their location, or chooseOpen folderto display the contents in an Explorer window. (Be sure to close Outlook before proceeding.) Once you've found the file, right-click it and chooseRename. Call the file .
When you restart Outlook, the program will bellyache that it can't find its .pst file. ClickOK. Outlook will offer to create a new Personal Folders file. SelectOpenandOK. When Outlook finally comes up for air, clickFile, Open, Outlook Data File, select your outlook.old.pst (or mailbox.old.pst) file, and clickOKonce more. Now click the plus sign next to the Personal Folders entry at the bottom of the left pane; you'll find all of your old Outlook data there. Click and drag the files you want to keep from these folders to their analogs in your new Inbox, Contacts, Calendar, Sent Items, and maybe even Deleted Items folders. You can leave the old Personal Folders open, or right-click it and chooseClose. (If Outlook doesn't recognize your Contacts list, follow Microsoft's instructions for resetting your profile.)
You can improve the performance of any version of Outlook by archiving old messages: ClickFile, Archive, choose a folder, pick a date in the 'Archive items older than' drop-down calendar, and clickOK. See Microsoft's site for more on modifying Outlook's automatic backup settings .
Next, run Outlook's Inbox Repair Tool to make sure that your .pst file is working well. With Outlook closed, clickStart, Search, chooseAll files and folders(if necessary), type , and pressEnter. Double-click the file in the search results window, clickBrowse, navigate to your .pst file as described above, select it, and clickOpen, Start. If the Inbox Repair Tool finds errors (it probably will), checkMake backup of scanned file before repairingand clickRepair. ClickOKwhen the repairs are complete.
Now right-clickPersonal Folders, chooseProperties for "Personal Folders", click theAdvancedbutton under the General tab, and selectCompact Now. If your .pst file is old or very scattered, the compression can take a while. When it's done, clickOKtwice.
Gain hard-drive space by reducing the amount Internet Explorer claims. Clearing the history files, cookies, and cache in Internet Explorer is simple: ClickTools, Internet Options, and then chooseDelete CookiesandDelete Filesunder Temporary Internet Files on the General tab, orClear Historyunder History. But don't expect your cleanup to last long.
If your computer has a 150GB hard drive, it may not matter to you that IE uses 3GB worth of temporary files. Conversely, you may gladly tolerate slightly slower browsing to save space on a 10GB drive.
To curb IE's voracious storage appetite, clickTools, Internet Options, choose theSettingsbutton under the General tab, and run the slider down to 20MB or 30MB (or up to maybe as much as 100MB if you have a horrendously slow dial-up Internet connection). ClickOKtwice to finish the job.
Power Tips: Optimize Your Notebook
Notebook garbage is like desktop garbage, only worse: All that excess activity saps your system's resources. Anything that unnecessarily drains your laptop's battery deserves to get dumped. A quick tune-up can make any notebook more energy efficient.
Get more battery life from your notebook by choosing this power scheme in your Power Options. Choose the right power scheme for your work style (or make a scheme of your own). ClickStart, Control Panel, Performance and Maintenance(if necessary),Power Options. Under Power Schemes, pickMax Battery, and clickOK. This setting shuts off your monitor after 1 minute and puts your notebook in standby if you don't use it for 2 minutes. If that is too soon, repeat the steps and choose thePortable/Laptoppower scheme, which goes into standby after 5 minutes. (Note that some battery-saving modes may slow your system down.)
Another way to reduce your notebook's power consumption is by dimming the screen. Unfortunately, every notebook manufacturer seems to have a different technique for screen dimming, so you may have to go digging for your owner's manual. (Some laptop keyboards have keys with light icons and up/down arrows.) My rule of thumb: Set your screen to the dimmest setting you can stand, and then bump it up one step. Ultimately you're better off draining a little more of the battery than straining your eyes.
A notebook's built-in wireless card sucks up power as it looks for access points, so disable yours when you're not working on a network. Other laptop power-grabbers that you should unplug when you don't need them are USB devices and PC Cards.
Give autostart programs the heave-ho when you're running on battery power. In addition to following the steps in " Poke Autostart Porkers ," right-click the icons in your system tray (near the clock) and shut down the programs you don't need. They'll start up again the next time Windows loads.
Windows XP's standby mode stops your hard drive and monitor, but everything currently in your system's memory stays there, using a little trickle of power. Hibernation mode writes everything in memory to the hard drive and shuts down your machine completely. Windows springs back quickly from standby mode, but it takes much longer to wake up from hibernation. However, if your notebook's battery dies while in standby, you lose any changes to your open files that you haven't saved.
To put your notebook into standby mode, clickStart, Turn Off Computer, Stand By. To make the unit hibernate, chooseStart, Turn Off Computerand clickHibernate(you may have to hold down theShiftkey to see this option). If it won't hibernate, clickStart, Control Panel, Performance and Maintenance(if necessary),Power Options, Hibernate, and checkEnable hibernation. To restart your system from either mode, press the power button.
If your computer has a "Sleep" button, or if it turns off when you close the lid, click theAdvancedtab to find options for adjusting these settings in the Power Buttons box.
Cleaning Tips: Grime Fighters
The digital detritus slowing Windows' performance is virtual dirt; the stuff inside your keyboard and mouse, or on the surface of your monitor and optical discs, is the real thing. Here's how to get rid of accumulated material that can literally gum up the works.
The dirt, dust, and crumbs that keyboards pick up so easily make for rough typing. To clean your keyboard, you'll need a can of compressed air (available at any computer store for about $5); a bottle of isopropyl alcohol (about $2 at any drugstore); cotton swabs; and two clean, soft cotton cloths (a cut-up old T-shirt will do).
Unplug the keyboard and bring it outside (or place it on newspaper). Turn it upside down and tap it gently to knock out loose dirt. Then turn it vertical and spray compressed air between the keys. Finally, turn the keyboard upside down, shake it again, and slap the bottom. Repeat this spray-shake-slap routine until nothing comes out.
With the keyboard still unplugged, put some alcohol on one of the cloths and wipe the surface clean. Dip a cotton swab in the alcohol and clean between the keys where the cloth can't reach. Alcohol evaporates pretty quickly, but if necessary dry the keyboard with the other cloth.
If your mechanical mouse stops rolling properly, cleaning the inside rollers should make it as good as new. All you need to get back on a roll are a can of compressed air and possibly tweezers.
Unplug the mouse and turn it upside down. You'll see a little plastic disk with a hole in the middle. The roller ball shows through the hole. Turn the disk in the direction indicated by the arrows (counterclockwise on Microsoft mice), remove the disk, and take out the ball.
You'll see two or three rollers inside. Lint and dirt on these rollers are what make your mouse misbehave. Blow some compressed air onto the rollers to loosen the gunk, which tends to clump into big pieces. Then pull the stuff off with your fingers or with tweezers. Clean any surface oils off the ball. Reassemble the mouse.
What's that weird character on your worksheet? Is it a euro? An ampersand in some strange script font? No, it's a little dust ball clinging to your screen. Cleaning a CRT monitor is pretty easy: Just turn off the monitor, slightly moisten a soft cloth with water (never use glass cleaner), rub the screen, and wipe it dry. Removing dirt and grime from an LCD is a bit more complicated. You'll need a microfiber cloth (such as those sold or given away by opticians for cleaning eyeglasses), as well as a few ounces of a mixture that's half water and half isopropyl alcohol. Turn off the monitor (if it's on a notebook, turn off the PC), lightly moisten the cloth with the fluid, and wipe carefully. With both CRTs and LCDs, wait a few minutes after you finish cleaning before turning the monitor back on.
A single speck of dirt on the surface of a CD or DVD can interrupt a song, a movie, or a program installation. If wiping the disc gently from the center out with a dry cotton cloth doesn't do the trick, break out the hardware: For cleaning optical discs, try a device such as 3M's $13 Scotch CD and CD-ROM Cleaner (which also cleans DVDs). The hand-cranked device comes with a spray bottle of cleaner. Put a little of the cleaner on your dirty disc, insert the disc (label-side-down) into the device, close the top, and turn the crank five times; then remove the disc, and let it air dry for a minute or so.