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Keeping Your Windows PC Running Efficiently
Mike Patch

Is your Windows PC slower and slower to respond over time? Ever wonder if it’s possible to restore your PC to its original speed and keep it running fast? The following PC preventative maintenance tips were compiled from ITS technicians who deal with dead and dying Windows PCs on a daily basis. Following these basic steps are your best insurance against a bad day with your Windows Computer.

Please Note! The following article was written for Algonquin College Staff workshops. These tips are directed towards staff members for both their work and home PCs. Students may wish to use these tips for their own home PCs, please be advised that the Help Desk does not have the resources to support Student home PCs if you experience problems. Students are also directed not to change the configuration of Algonquin College PCs as this will violate the terms of your user agreement.

Tip 1: Is Your Computer Good Enough?

To avoid slowdowns and potential software problems, you have to ask yourself if your PC is fast enough and does it have sufficient memory to do the job. All the Windows speed tips in the world will not help if your PC does not meet the minimum requirements for Windows and the programs running in it. The speed of your processor, the amount and type of RAM, and the speed and size of your Hard Drive are usually the three biggest factors.
The biggest problem with PC hardware slowdowns is usually not having enough memory (RAM). Adding more RAM to a Windows PC is usually the most effective way to speed it up (up to a point). Most PCs don’t come with enough, and these days it’s cheap, therefore it never hurts to have more. The following table shows my recommendations for minimum RAM requirements for different Windows versions.
Minimum RAM
(in Megabytes)
95 32
98 / Me 64
2000 128
XP 256

How do you find out how much RAM you have now? In all versions of Windows, right-click on the My Computer icon on your desktop and select Properties. Under the General tab, you will find information on the version of windows, who it’s licenced to, the licence key, and the type of computer. The very last item is the amount of RAM. Windows XP will display the amount of RAM in Megabytes (MB). Older versions of Windows will display an amount in Kilobytes (KB), divide by 1000 to get the amount in Megabytes (MB).
Windows NT, 2000, and XP can give you a readout of how much RAM you are using at any particular time by pressing Ctrl+Alt+Delete once, and selecting Task Manager. Click on the Performance tab to see your current CPU (processor) and MEM (memory) usage. Leave the task manger open to see how much memory is taken up by running your normal applications. If your memory usage is consistently near or above the amount of RAM you have installed, it’s time to buy more RAM.

Tip 2: Backup Your Data

Face it: your computer will eventually fail. Hard Drives crash, files get corrupted, and power spikes happen. If it happens in the next ten minutes how much work will you lose? If your answer is more than a few days work, you’re not backing up enough.
If you’re saving important work to your hard drive, you should be backing it up to other media such as diskette, zip disk, CD, or Network Drive (N: Drive) on a regular basis (at least once a week). If backing up to media, store the media in a different place than your PC. What if your PC and backup disks are both in the basement when it floods?
The best place to store your files at work is a network drive such as your N: drive. Network drives are located on a server with redundant hardware, in a climate-controlled secure server room, that are backed up to tape daily with off-site fireproof storage for the tapes. Your work PC should not have anything that is important to you stored on the local hard drive. Let ITS handle your data storage and backups simply by placing your data on your N: drive.

Tip 3: Don’t Leave Many Applications Running

If you’re done typing that letter and now you want to browse the Internet, save the letter and close your word processor first. You can always open the word processor again later to edit or print the letter at a later time. Don’t keep 14 applications open if you’re not currently using them all. The more applications you open, the more your PC slows down.

Tip 4: Install and Maintain a Virus Scanner

There is no better preventative maintenance tip than avoiding viruses. Install a virus scanner, keep it regularly updated, and make sure that it is running in the background (in your system tray) to protect you. Most virus scanners can be configured to plugin to email programs to warn you when downloading virus-infected messages.
The best way of avoiding viruses altogether is to avoid clicking on email attachments. Don’t click on an attachment if you don’t know what it is, and don’t click on those cool executable attachments sent by your friends.

Tip 5: Reboot Regularly

Windows PCs were never designed to run for weeks and weeks without rebooting. Rebooting regularly clears memory problems and is good for the life of your PC. Older versions of Windows such as 95, 98, and Me should be rebooted (or turned off) every day. Newer versions of Windows such as 2000 and XP should be rebooted about once a week if left on for long periods of time.

Tip 6: Remove Desktop Items

Here’s a little tidbit that most people don’t know: all the icons, files and programs stored on your desktop are loaded into memory via your windows ‘user profile’. A messy desktop equals a slow PC. Desktop shortcuts are not much of a problem because of their small size. Files, downloads, and programs should be stored in a folder on your hard drive or a network drive, not your desktop.

Tip 7: Use Windows Update

Windows Update, accessible via the Start Menu, or will scan your computer for missing software updates and security patches to the Windows operating system. Click Scan for Updates and always install “Critical Updates and Service Packs.”
Install Operating System and Driver Updates only for security updates or problems you may be experiencing with Windows and Device Drivers.

Tip 8: Remove Startup Items

Speed up your windows load time and reduce the amount of RAM used by removing startup items. Startup items are programs that load at startup, so they load faster when you request them.
Startup items are found under Start > Programs > Startup. In recent versions of windows you can simply right click on each icon in the start menu to remove it. Remove all programs in your startup menu that you don’t want to load on startup, it’s generally safe to remove them all. If you cannot remove the items from the start menu, use windows explorer to find the following folder and remove them from there: C:\Documents and Settings\MyUsername\Start Menu\Programs\Startup

Tip 9: Remove System Tray Items

Items in your system tray:
Windows System Tray Screenshot
(in the lower right hand corner of your screen, to the left of the clock) are programs that load themselves at startup and stay resident in memory, known as Terminate and Stay Resident programs (TSRs). You can stop unnecessary programs (don’t stop your Virus Scanner!) from loading at startup and slowing down your PC.

Windows 98/Me:

  1. Start > Programs > Accessories > System Tools > System Info
  2. Under the Tools menu select System Configuration Utility
  3. Click on the Startup tab and unselect the programs you do not want to load in your system tray.
Windows XP:
  1. Click Start then Run
  2. Type msconfig
  3. Click on the Startup tab and unselect the programs you do not want to load in your system tray.

Tip 10: Defragment Your Hard Drive Regularly

Over time, the files on your hard disk will become fragmented. This has nothing to do with the contents of your files or the integrity of the data, it simply means that the data on the hard drive gets less orderly as files are added, re-written, and deleted from your hard drive. Restoring a logical order to the files your hard drive is called defragmentation. This will make your files faster to access therefore speed up your PC. Defragmenting can take an hour or more to complete, depending on the number of files on your computer and its speed. Do not use your computer while defragmenting.

Windows 95/98/Me:

  1. Close all open programs.
  2. Disable your Virus Scanner. For Norton Antivirus, right-click on its icon in the system tray and click disable.
  3. Click on Start > Programs > Accessories > System Tools > Disk Defragmenter
  4. Click on Settings and make sure Rearrange program files so my programs start faster and Check the drive for errors are checked. Also make sure Every time I defragment my hard drive is selected. Click OK.
  5. Click the Drive Letter you want to defragment (usually drive C:) and click OK to start defragmenting.
  6. Windows will now start defragmenting your Hard Drive. If the amount of fragmentation is low, Windows will inform you that you do not need to defragment. Do not open any programs while defragmenting, leave the computer alone until it’s done.
Windows 2000/XP:
  1. Close all open programs.
  2. Disable your Virus Scanner. For Norton Antivirus, right-click on its icon in the system tray and click disable.
  3. Click on Start > Programs > Accessories > System Tools > Disk Defragmenter
  4. First click on Analyze and View Report to view the Percentage Fragmentation
  5. If the Percentage Fragmentation is more than 5% click Defragment. Do not open any programs while defragmenting, leave the computer alone until it’s done.

Tip 11: Remove Spyware

Some shareware programs downloaded off the web, especially filesharing clients such as Kazaa and Bearshare also install spyware with the program being installed. Spyware is usually a program that runs in the background recording what web sites you visit, to relay that information to advertisers. You should remove spyware not only to protect your privacy, but also because spyware programs are running in the background slowing down your PC.
The best tool to remove spyware currently is AdAware, available from:
Download and install the latest version of AdAware Standard (Free) Edition, and make sure to click “Check for updates now” to make sure you have the latest spyware definitions. Click “Start” and select “Use Default Scanning Options” to scan your computer for spyware. It is generally safe to remove any spyware files, cookies, and registry entries that are listed by AdAware. AdAware ‘quarantines’ or backs up these files in the unlikely case that it deletes a file that was needed, you can always roll back any changes if experience any problems afterwards.

Tip 12: Adding and Removing Programs

All those cool fun programs and games you downloaded for free off the internet are probably not made very well and may very well slow down or even break your PC. Would you install shoddy parts from an unknown manufacturer in your car? Of course not. Only install software from reputable software manufacturers.
If you aren’t using a program anymore, remove it. If it’s taking up unneeded space and slowing down your PC, why is it there? Remove it properly by using Add or Remove Programs in the Control Panel.

Tip 13: Remove Temp Files

Windows regularly writes temporary files to its temp folder: C:\windows\temp
Windows does not regularly remove these files, they take up needed disk space. It’s safe to remove them.

Tip 14: Keep Free Space on Your Hard Drive

Windows requires ‘swap space’ on your Hard Drive to be able to run properly. Leave at least 100 Megabytes of free disk space on your Hard Drive, never completely fill the drive.

Tip 15: Use Separate Partitions for Applications and Data

When setting up a new PC, or when reformatting your PC to reinstall, use separate partitions for Applications and Data. This can mean making two partitions on one Hard Drive, or if you can afford it: one hard drive for applications and one hard drive for data. This will result in faster data access.
If this doesn’t make sense to you, simply ask for this type of configuration when you purchase a new PC. This cannot easily be done to a PC once you’re using it.

Tip 16: Do Not Expose Your PC to Extreme Conditions

It may seem obvious, but many PCs/Laptops show up dead because they were exposed to extreme conditions of temperature, humidity, or static electricity. Your PC/Laptop was designed to operate in external temperatures of approximately 5 – 30 degrees Celsius. It should not be exposed to excessive humidity, and cannot handle shock from static electricity. Taking it outside for short periods of time is ok for transport but don’t leave it in the car overnight.

Tip 17: Keep Your PC Clean

Avoid potential computer meltdowns by keeping your PC free of dust. Dust collects inside your PC and if not cleaned regularly can cause the fans that keep everything cool to slow down and jam up.
Staff should take their work PC to ITS for cleaning, these instructions are for your home PC. If you do not feel comfortable opening your PC, take it to a repair shop such as the Algonquin New Technology Store to have them clean it for you.
Turn off your PC, unplug it, remove the cover, and touch the outer metal frame to ground yourself of any static electricity. AVOID TOUCHING any of the components inside. Use a can of compressed air (available at any PC shop) to blow dust away from all components. Keep the can upright, turning it upside down will spray out the chemicals inside the can. There is a large fan at the back of your PC in the Power Supply, DO NOT TOUCH this fan or go inside the power supply as the power supply carries current when the PC is turned off, simply blow as much dust as you can away from it. Check the fans on your processor and on the video card (if you have a fan on your video card) can rotate freely with a non-metal object such as a pen cap. If they are not rotating, or the motion feels rough, have the fan replaced immediately.
You should remove dust from your PC every 6-12 months, depending on how dusty the external environment is.

Last Update: Thursday Feb 27, 2003
Maintained by: Michael Patch