Neil Turner's Blog

Blogging about technology and randomness since 2002

My guide to maintaining a Windows computer

View out of the window

As one of those people who ‘knows a lot about computers’, I’m often asked to clean up peoples’ computers, particularly if they’re running slow, acting oddly or just haven’t been used in a long time. Aside from any specific things that I do to fix problems, there are also a series of general steps that I follow to give the computer a ‘spring clean’, and I’d like to share this with you. If you have any helpful suggestions for additions or changes, I’d be interested to hear them in the comments.

I’m focussing on Windows machines here as these tend to require more TLC than Macs, but some advice applies regardless of the operating system.

Step 0: Back everything up

If you’re about to start messing around with things (especially installing device drivers or removing software), it’s a good idea to do a full backup of the system first. It won’t make the computer run faster but will be a safety net if things go wrong. If the computer already has a good, recent backup, skip this step.

Step 1: Update or install anti-virus software

Although I don’t use an active anti-virus tool on my Mac (I have ClamXav for scanning individual suspect files), they are, sadly, a must on Windows, so if one is not present then I’ll install Microsoft Security Essentials (MSE), which also combats spyware. Some people prefer AVG or Avast, which are also free, but MSE is comparatively unobtrusive and works well.

Similarly, if there’s a paid anti-virus product on the computer but the subscription has expired, unless the owner is keen to keep it and pay for a new subscription, I’ll uninstall it and use MSE instead. I’ll also make sure that any anti-virus product (whether MSE or something else) is up-to-date, and do a full scan.

Step 2: Check the service packs

If the machine isn’t running the latest service pack for Windows, this gets installed next. Windows Update doesn’t always offer service packs straightaway so I find that I sometimes have to download the ‘Network install’ package and install that instead. These packages are a bigger download, but should reduce the number of individual security updates that are required later.

Step 3: Windows Update

At this point it’s time to open Windows Update and install any missing security updates. On machines running Windows XP, if the computer hasn’t already been updated to use Microsoft Update (i.e. the service which also installs updates for Microsoft Office as well as Windows itself), I’ll take the opportunity to do this. And also on XP, at this stage I use ‘Express’ updates, rather than ‘Custom’, to focus on just the high priority updates at first. The optional updates can come later.

Let Windows install the updates, then reboot, and run Windows Update again. Keep going until there are no more high priority updates; this may take as many as four reboots as installing one security update may trigger others. Once there are no more high priority updates, you can then install some of the optional ones, such as updates to root certificates or compatibility view for Internet Explorer.

Step 4: Remove obsolete software

Open Control Panel and go into Add/Remove Programs (XP) or Programs and Features (Windows Vista/7), and then go through and remove any software that isn’t in use. In particular, I would suggest removing RealPlayer and Macromedia/Adobe Shockwave Player – very few web sites require these any more and because they have web browser plugins they otherwise need to be kept up-to-date to reduce the risk of virus infection. For this reason, I would also remove QuickTime – provided the latest version of iTunes is installed, QuickTime is generally not needed anymore. If you encounter problems with other applications after it is removed, then install the latest version from apple.com.

I would also take this opportunity to remove any codec packs. They’re less common these days, as Windows 7 in particular will play most audio and video formats with no extra software, but in the past some people (myself included) would recommend them as a one-size-fits-all way of enabling playback of many different types of media file in Windows Media Player. Unfortunately, many codec packs include unlicensed software, having more than one installed could cause conflicts, and some can be a conduit for trojan horses (although the anti-virus scan in step one should have knobbled those). If you must use a codec pack, CCCP is probably the best as it doesn’t use any unlicensed software and shouldn’t cause compatibility problems, but any others should be uninstalled. This also goes for Real Alternative and QuickTime Alternative, if you still have them installed – again, I recommended Real Alternative 8 years ago but now there’s no need for it and its unlicensed. Alternatively, install VLC, which will play practically anything you can throw at it, and it doesn’t mess with Windows’ own codecs.

Finally, you may find that the computer has multiple versions of the Java Runtime Environment – uninstall all but the newest one, as there’s generally no good reason to keep old versions. Unfortunately, up until very recently, every time a new update for Java was installed any old versions were not removed, and as well as taking up lots of disk space (around 100 MB per time) this can also present a security risk due to unpatched vulnerabilities in old versions.

Step 5: Update any software currently in use

In Step 3, you should have installed the latest updates for any Microsoft software – i.e. Internet Explorer and Microsoft Office – so now we need to update everything else. Prioritise web browsers, likeĀ Firefox, Safari, Google Chrome and Opera and any software with browser plugins, like Java, Adobe Flash Player and Adobe Reader as these are more exposed to the internet and therefore old versions are more susceptible to security flaws being exploited. Newer versions of these will auto-update, but older versions will need to be updated manually. Once done, I would advise running the Secunia Online Software Inspector to verify that these are the most up-to-date versions, and any old software has been safely uninstalled. You may want to select a thorough scan if its your first time using it, just in case there’s an old version of a program installed to an obscure location.

Next, update any other programs to their latest versions.

Step 6: Remove any unlicensed software

Because I don’t condone software piracy, and also know of decent free alternatives to unpaid software, this is a good opportunity to get rid of any pirated software, or software that is being used beyond its trial period. WinRAR is probably one of the more common software programs where people install it without paying. If you need it to create RAR archives, then pay for it. If you don’t, and just need something that will open RAR archives, I’d instead recommend 7-Zip, which is free. Same for the few people out there who still have old copies of WinZip. For everything else, AlternativeTo is a good place to look for free alternatives to commercial software.

Step 7: Update graphics drivers

With hardware drivers, generally speaking, you should leave these alone unless there’s a problem; i.e. if they aren’t broken, don’t try to fix them. However, graphics card drivers are the exception here, as the major chip designers (nVidia, AMD and Intel) frequently improve their drivers which can boost performance. This is particularly true on computers that are around 2-3 years old, as around 2 years ago drivers became available for existing cards which enabled more hardware acceleration for software such as web browsers (see my article about enabling hardware acceleration in Firefox). Go to the chip manufacturer’s web site and then download and install the latest drivers.

Step 8: Clean up the hard drive

I use CCleaner to clean up temporary files and various other bits of unneeded data, and whilst it is worth doing this regularly it’s arguably more important after you’ve cleaned up a computer like this. I would also suggest installing CCEnhancer, which expands CCleaner’s abilities and can remove even more stuff. Here’s my CCleaner review from last year.

Step 9: Run a disk check

You may, at this point, want to check that the hard disk is okay, so in Windows Explorer, right-click the disk drive, choose Properties, then Tools and then scan the disk for errors. This can take a long time on large disk drives, and even longer if you check for bad sectors, so it’s probably not worth doing unless you’re still getting unexplained errors with the computer.

At this point you may also wish to try defragmenting the drive. In ye olden days regular defragmentation of your hard disk was recommended; nowadays, if the disk has plenty of free space left there’s probably no point. If you’ve used 80-90% of your disk space, then you may see some benefit but it will take a long time to complete on a big drive and you should not use your computer during this time. Also, do not defragment any solid state drives – not only will it not offer any performance benefits but it may actually reduce the lifespan of your drive.

Step 10: Reduce boot up times

Soluto is my suggested tool for reducing the time your computer takes to start up, and I reviewed it last year. It shows you all of the programs that run when your computer starts up, and lets you go through each one in turn, with advice as to whether it is needed. Even on modern computers, it’s possible to reduce the time it takes to start the computer by as much as a minute – especially on those that come with lots of included software which isn’t necessary but also impossible to remove. And some software can be set to start after the computer is up and running, if it’s not needed straightaway. You can use other programs to control what runs at boot up time, but Soluto is the easiest tool that I’ve found.

Step 11: Back up again

You should now find that your computer is working better than before, and is up-to-date with all of the necessary security fixes. Therefore, it’s probably best to do another backup; should anything go wrong again, you’ll have a ‘good’ backup to fall back to. If the computer isn’t set to do automatic backups, say to an external hard disk, it may be worth setting this up if possible – Windows 7 comes with a reasonable backup application and third-party software is available for XP and Vista. I use Time Machine on my Mac to make regular backups, and it has saved my bacon on many occasions.

So that’s my guide, which I hope you find useful. If you think I’m wrong, or have missed something out, I’d love to hear from you.

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