Keep a healthy PC: A routine-maintenance guide
By Fred Langa
· Anti-malware tasks: For maximum security, use an anti-malware tool that offers continuous, always-on protection. It should update itself and scan your system for malware on a fully automated schedule — and on demand.
There are dozens of good anti-malware tools available. Here are some popular free apps to consider — and you'll find many more, free and paid, with a simple Web search.
– Microsoft Security Essentials/Windows Defender. Both are available as free downloads (site) for XP, Vista, and Windows 7. Defender is built into Windows 8 (no separate download needed). For more info, see the April 4, 2013, Top Story, "Microsoft's six free desktop security tools." Note: Microsoft Security Essentials and Windows Defender work best for experienced users. The following free alternatives might be better choices for less experienced users.
– Avast Free Antivirus (more info)
– AVG Antivirus Free (info)
– Avira Free Antivirus (info)
– Comodo Antivirus (info)
Most anti-malware tools let you choose both quick and full scans. A quick scan typically targets just the hard disk areas where malware most commonly resides and takes just a minute or two. Full scans examine most or all of the files on your PC; it's much more thorough but also takes much longer.
Verify anti-malware is up to date. Set your anti-malware app to auto-update regularly — ideally, every day. Check weekly that the app's automatic updates are actually being installed.
Anti-malware: Full scan with standalone scanner: A separate standalone scanner is used periodically to verify that your main anti-malware tool is doing its job properly — and to remove any malware that made it past your primary defenses. Many such tools are available; most are free. For more on these apps, see the April 11, 2013, Top Story, "A dozen tools for removing almost any malware."
Check Updates: Verify that Windows is fully up to date by opening Windows Update (e.g., via Control Panel/System and Security/Windows Update) and clicking the Check for updates link. While you're at it, check other important software — especially browsers, Java, and Adobe Flash — via each app's update mechanism.
Verify firewall: Firewalls are usually reliable, but they can be compromised by malware, accidental settings changes, or software problems. Verify that your firewall is working properly with any of several simple, free, and fast testing tools such as Steve Gibson's ShieldsUP site and the HackerWatch site. For more info, check out the March 11, 2010, LangaList Plus column, "Let's put your firewall to the test" (paid content).
Change passwords: You can significantly improve your online security by regularly changing all passwords. And never use the same password on different sites. If your cranial data storage isn't up to the task (mine sure isn't!), password-management software makes keeping dozens or even hundreds of passwords easy. (See the Oct. 17, 2013, Top Story, "Protect yourself from the next big data breach"; skip down to the section labeled "Stepping up to a standalone password manager.")
Uninstall unused apps. Streamline your system by removing old, unneeded, unused, or obsolete applications. It's typically a simple, straightforward process — use Control Panel's uninstall applet (e.g., Win7's Programs and Features) or the uninstall tool that came with the no-longer-needed software.
Data integrity is all about backups — making sure that your data will be safe, no matter what.
As most Windows Secrets readers know, there are three primary types of backups. Incremental backups (including Win8's File History), copy only those files that have changed since the previous backup. These backups are typically fast and small. Full backups copy all targeted files, even if they've been archived in previous backups. Image backups capture everything on the disk; they are slow to create, but they can quickly restore a system to its exact condition when the image was created.
Backups used to be a hassle, but automated tools now make them set-and-forget simple. There are many third-party backup tools available, but I recommend trying Windows' built-in offerings first. After all, you've already paid for them!
Previous Windows Secrets articles have all the information you'll need about Microsoft's backup systems:
– Win7, Vista, XP backups and imaging: See the May 12, 2011, Top Story, "Build a complete Windows 7 safety net."
– Win8, 8.1 backups: See the July 11, 2013, Top Story, "Understanding Windows 8's File History."
– Win8's imaging: See the October 10, 2013, Top Story, "Creating customized recovery images for Win8."
Chkdsk, defrag, SMART: Windows' built-in "Check Disk" (chkdsk.exe) and defragmentation (defrag) tools might be all you need to verify and maintain your disk's basic health. (Note: Win8 calls its defragmenter "Optimize.") In Win7 and 8, the built-in tools know how to recognize and correctly handle solid-state drives (SSDs). For more information and how-tos, see the Jan. 10, 2013, Top Story, "Let your PC start the new year right!"; skip down to the section titled "Check the hard drive's physical/logical health."
Many defrag tools offer different levels of defragmentation, such as quick and full. Quick defrags take only minutes and resolve the worst instances of drive fragmentation; full defrags can take much longer, but they completely reorder your drive's files for maximum efficiency.
Most hard drives also collect highly detailed disk-health data via their built-in Self-monitoring, Analysis, and Reporting Technology (aka SMART) subsystem. To look for signs of impending drive trouble, you can use free software to retrieve and analyze this data. See the Sept. 6, 2012, LangaList Plus item, "Using and understanding SMART hard-drive tools."
Verify free disk space: Windows needs elbow room to run well. When a hard drive has less than about 15–20 percent free space, Windows can slow down — and some operations such as defragmentation might not run at all.
Periodically checking that you're not running out of space is easy. In Windows/File Explorer, right-click on each drive in turn and select Properties. Note the graph and text detailing the amount of disk space used/available. If space is tight, try deleting files and uninstalling programs, use disk compression (see the Sept. 12, 2013, LangaList Plus item, "Two ways to solve a space crunch …"; paid content), or buy a larger drive. (For more info on gaining drive space, see the TechNet article, "Forty ways to free up disk space.")
Clean and de-dust: Most PCs have fans that constantly draw in room air. Eventually, a PC's cooling system can become choked with dust, leading to unsafe operating temperatures that can cause malfunctions and lead to premature system death. A complete PC maintenance routine includes physically cleaning out your PC from time to time. You'll find cleaning information in the July 1, 2004, LangaList Plus article, "Right and wrong ways to de-dust a PC" (paid content), and in a Feb. 25, 2005, InformationWeek article, "Getting the grunge out of your PC," that I wrote for another publication.
Check batteries: All PCs use some kind of battery, if only to run the clock when the system is powered off. Portable devices have larger batteries, and uninterruptible power supplies (UPSes) have still larger batteries. Whatever size, all batteries have a finite life — even rechargeables can withstand only so many recharge cycles.
Check whatever batteries your devices use, and make sure they're intact, corrosion-free, and not leaking or bulging. Try running your device entirely on battery power, if possible, to see how long a charge lasts; replace batteries if their power is inadequate for your needs. For more information, see the Jan. 21, 2010, LangaList Plus column, "Extend the life of your laptop's battery" (paid content).
Check drivers, BIOS: Generally, you should replace system drivers and/or update the BIOS only if the system is experiencing some kind of hardware or driver trouble. The one exception is when a driver or BIOS update corrects a security vulnerability — then it's worth installing. In those cases, visit your system or component maker's website and see what drivers or BIOS is available for your system.
Now a few words from myself. Fred posted a schedule of events that he recommends. I think that for most casual computer use, running a quick scan of your anti-virus may once or a couple times a week if fine. I’m happy with once a week for a quick and once a month a month for a full scan. If you want to do scans more often, go right ahead.
Backups can be done with a simple external hard drive by just copying and paste your data. You can get hard drives from Seagate, Western Digital and Clickfree (and others) that will automatically copy your data and even make full system images.
Drivers should be updated via Windows Updates. And BIOS should only be updates under the guide of a professional. If the BIOS update fails, the computer could end up being a very nice doorstop.
If you have any questions on the topics above, please let me know. Some of these can be a bit daunting, so don’t hesitate to ask for help or further directions on anything in this article.