Normally, we think of maintenance as a chore, something we have to do to keep things running smoothly and prevent problems down the road whether with our car, house or computer. But with a PC, maintenance can actually be fun... when it's approached from the right perspective.
The "joy" of computer maintenance takes many forms. These days, automation is the byword. Operating systems such as Microsoft Windows and utility suites such as Symantec's Norton Internet Security let you automatically keep crucial parts of your computer system up to date. It's fun to watch the technology keep tabs on itself.
The security vulnerabilities of Windows are legion, and this forces you to download patches and updates if you want to minimize your exposure to hackers seeking to break into your system over the Internet. You can run Windows Update periodically through Microsoft Internet Explorer, which automatically detects which versions of Windows components you currently have installed and, by checking with Microsoft's site, which have newer versions available. Or, if you're running Windows XP Home Edition, you can automate things even further by directing Windows to check for "critical updates" by itself at the frequency and time of your choosing. From the Control Panel, go to System and click on Automatic Updates to specify your settings.
You can keep your other software up to date by periodically checking the Web sites of the respective manufacturers. Typically, by pulling down the program's Help menu, you'll quickly be directed to the site. But the Web site VersionTracker (www.techtracker.com/products) does something similar with multiple programs, for free, whether you have a Windows PC or a Mac. The ad-supported site has 30,000 programs in its database. Pay versions, starting at $24.95, automatically alert you when new updates of programs you're using become available.
Staying up to date is crucially important these days in keeping the bad guys away from your computer and those using it. The best overall utility suite for this is Norton Internet Security (www.symantec.com), which combines such crucial tools as a firewall, anti-virus program, porn-blocker, spam · filter, spywear detector and pop-up ad blocker. If you use the program, make sure you let its LiveUpdate feature automatically keep your virus definitions and other components up to date.
Symantec's other utility suite, Norton SystemWorks, is less useful, and if you need system tools more powerful than those provided by Windows itself, a better package overall is V Communications' SystemSuite (www.v-com.com). SystemSuite includes tools for preventing and recovering from hard disk crashes, recovering accidentally erased files, completely uninstalling programs you no longer need and completely shredding sensitive files. It also has an excellent file manager, PowerDesk, that makes quicker work of copying, moving, deleting and otherwise manipulating files than Windows Explorer.
With today's large and fast hard drives and more efficient operating systems, one maintenance task that's no longer as necessary is disk defragmenting. When working with files over time, they invariably wind up stored in pieces at different locations on your hard disk. Running a defragmenter gathers up the pieces and places them together in one contiguous location.
Recent testing by the computer magazine PC World, however, showed that defragging no longer improves performance the way it used to. It still makes sense to defrag once in a while, though unless it's for a network file server, there's usually no need to buy a separate program for this.
One maintenance task that's still crucial is backing up your data, particularly if it's business or financial related. At the very least, manually copy such data to a rewritable CD or DVD disc when it changes. More sophisticated options include using the more automated backup tools that come with Windows, a standalone backup program for networks such as the well-regarded Dantz Retrospect Professional (www.dantz.com) or a Web backup system such as the excellent IBackup (www.ibackup.com).
One really interesting maintenance task is checking to see who's spying on you. If you download a lot of software, one or more programs may be peeping at your Web surfing habits, which could be slowing you down. Such behavior naturally riles people, and good-spirited entrepreneurs offer free software to weed out the sneaks. The best overall standalone program for this is Patrick M. Kolla's Spybot Search & Destroy (www.safer-networking.org).
Another fun and free software maintenance program is WinPatrol (www.winpatrol.com). Among other things, it shows you all the programs that load automatically every time you load Windows, letting you disable any you don't want running that may be slowing you down.
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book "Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway." For more info, Goldsborough can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or you can visit him online at www.netaxs.com/~reidgold/column.